Talking about Consent and Bodily Autonomy with Kids
By: Ashley Eller, LPC
Navigating the waters of raising a well-adjusted and happy child has been debated, redefined, and stigmatized for decades. As we are entering an age of new understanding with body awareness, teaching young children bodily autonomy and consent can provide them with the groundwork for both respectful and appropriate interactions with others, and also developing a healthy lifelong relationship with their own bodies. At its core, bodily autonomy is the right to make decisions about your own body and placing healthy boundaries with others. Demonstrating appropriate boundaries to children allows the child to maintain their curiosity while respecting themselves and others. As adults, it is our responsibility to teach children how to be respectful citizens of the world, and honoring choice is a crucial aspect of those teachings.
Bodily autonomy is one of those phrases that is not as prominent when educating young people, yet is such an important concept for providing children with authority over their own bodies. At its core, bodily autonomy is the right to make decisions about your own body. As an adult, this can mean a wide variety of things both serious and objective, like medical treatment, or personal and relational, like beauty narratives. For children, the concept can be simplified to: your body, your rules! Now, what is consent? Consent can be related to a variety of different contexts, traditionally only referenced for adults. For children, consent means choice, consent means asking for permission, and consent means understanding the word “no.” Consent and bodily autonomy work together to empower children with confidence, respect, and comfortability within themselves. These empowered children now have a solid platform to build upon for setting healthy boundaries, being able to assertively express their own needs, and increase personal safety behaviors.
Teaching children about consent is much easier than we actually realize, and you may be doing it already! There are many situations in a young child’s life that provide natural opportunities for age-appropriate discussions. One of the most common forms of affection that we teach young children is hugging. Hugging can be used as a greeting, as a way to show affection and encouragement, or as a way to express condolences and comfort. Each of these situations can be used to provide a child with an easily comprehensible lesson on consent and bodily autonomy. Hugging as a greeting is often the most direct lesson in asking for consent. Hugging is something that can be shared between same-age peers, family members, pets, or stuffed animals, and each scenario can provide the perfect opportunity to open the conversation for consent. Depending on your child’s age, you may want to start the discussion with stuffed animals or other toys. If your child is older, you can consider talking about same-age peers or family members.
As mentioned above, breaking consent into two different categories, asking for permission and understanding “no,” provides the child with an awareness that consent not only applies to themselves and their bodies, but respecting others bodies as well. Asking for permission is a concept that most children are already very familiar with when it comes to sharing toys or going outside. Asking for permission before hugging someone is a simple way of showing your respect to the other person. After asking for permission, we must emphasize the importance of waiting for the answer. Younger children may need more support while waiting to receive a response before engaging in behaviors (sometimes I get so excited that I want to run and hug my friends, too!). Explaining the importance of each part, both the asking and the appropriate behavior, allows the child to break consent down into easy to follow steps. Ask first, wait to receive an answer, then choose the appropriate action. If the other person would like a hug, hug away! If the other person says “no,” use words to convey your intention instead!
Finally, always remember to use emotion words that are appropriate for your child’s developmental level. Starting with words like sadness, hurt, or tired and eventually moving on to words like embarrassment or discomfort when describing how someone might be feeling when they do not want to provide consent. Providing young children with the groundwork for becoming happy, respectful, and engaged adults should include discussions on bodily autonomy and consent, along with all of the other important conversations had across the lifetime. By engaging in these discussions with your child, you are teaching them they you respect them, they deserve to respect themselves, and how to respect others. Whether you start with stuffed animals or peer relationships, it is never too late! Every child of every gender and every age can benefit from developmentally-appropriate discussions on consent and bodily autonomy. Remember: don’t feel weird or afraid! You are already doing an excellent job on teaching your child how to become a well-adjusted and respectful person, and this is just one more step on that ladder to happiness!
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