Body Autonomy: An Important Gift for Your Child

By Esther Friedman, ABC House Forensic Interviewer

The holidays are a time for making lasting memories with our loved ones.  Sometimes in our efforts to create the perfect holiday experience, however, we may inadvertently push our kids to do things that make them uncomfortable. >We may urge a child to hug or kiss an unfamiliar family member or to sit on Santa’s lap without thinking about the mixed message we are sending them.

When we force children to show affection or to touch someone when they are uncomfortable, we are unintentionally communicating to them that they do not have control over their bodies – and that what an adult wants them to do with their bodies is more important. For their sakes, this is a holiday tradition we need to break.

Teaching our children that they own their own bodies and can decide who touches them is a crucial part of protecting them. Here are several ways you can support your children in setting boundaries and developing a healthy sense of body autonomy:

  1. Don’t force physical affection. Model good boundaries by not pressing your child to allow touching when she is uncomfortable, such as hugging someone she does not know well.  Either ask your child if she wants a hug or skip it altogether unless your child initiates it.
  2. Provide backup. Be ready to intervene if a family member or friend is initiating physical contact and your child appears uncomfortable. Offer alternatives to the hug, such as a high five or fist bump.
  3. Respect the no. If your child tells you he doesn’t want sit on Santa’s lap or hug Aunt Connie, respect his decision. Praise his boundaries and emphasize with him that it is alright to say no to unwanted contact, whether it is from an adult or another child.
  4. Bring in reinforcements. Let the other adults in your life know that you are teaching your kids to have a say in what affection or physical contact they give and receive. By giving friends and family a heads-up ahead of time, they can help instill these lessons.

When we give children the power to make choices about physical contact, it allows them to set important boundaries later and encourages them to speak up if those boundaries are violated.  This increased confidence and safety is one of the best gifts your child can receive during the holidays and throughout the year.