The concept of personal boundaries is one of the most important concepts you can teach your children, so they can grow up to have happy, healthy relationships. Plus, learning about healthy personal boundaries as a young child lays the foundation for understanding consent as a teen.
How do you lay the foundation for consent with young children? First, you have to teach them about healthy boundaries. That is, everyone has the right to set limits with others about what they do and don’t want to happen. These limits can be physical boundaries – think about your “personal space” – or emotional boundaries. For young children, consent begins with “asking for permission.”
The best way for military families to show children healthy boundaries is to model it yourself – both with them and with other adults. Here’s a list of some common ways you can help your children learn to build this resilient skill in everyday family life.
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- Respect spoken “yes’s” and “no’s.” Clear communication is the foundation to teaching healthy boundaries and asking for permission. Help them practice saying yes or no in certain situations, rather than relying on body language alone. That way, children won’t just assume a behavior that makes them uncomfortable is okay, or that it’s “rude” to refuse unwanted contact.
- Ask for permission before offering physical affection. Touch should not be an automatic right for anyone – family, friend or stranger. Like adults, children can decide who they’d like to hug, high-five or hold their hand without repercussion. For example, a child may choose not to high-five a stranger’s hand at the grocery store, even if an accompanying adult thinks it’s polite to do so.
- Offer small choices for decisions which impact them. By offering your military children the chance to make their own decisions within reason, you’ll show respect for their personal right to decide for themselves. Questions like “It’s time to get dressed – would you like the red or blue shirt?” or “Do you want oatmeal or eggs for breakfast?” are easy ways to do this for young children without overwhelming them.
- Reinforce the idea that rules and healthy boundaries go both ways. Boundaries that your military child may enforce for themselves can also exist for others, including fellow playmates. For example, Tommy has the right to tell Mary to stop pushing him because that’s crossing his personal boundaries. But, Mary can tell Tommy to stop pulling her ponytail – because she has boundaries, too. As an adult, you can help children to understand that boundaries apply to everyone and different people may have different types of boundaries.
- Talk about “gut feelings.” You’ll need to explain that sometimes, people get a weird feeling that something isn’t right, even if they’re not sure why. They should trust that inner voice, because that’s an instinct we all have to keep us safe. That gut feeling might help them avoid a suspiciously friendly stranger, for example.
By modeling consent and respect for personal boundaries, you can help your military child stay safe as they actively seek secure relationships. And remember – Military OneSource is always able to boost your MilParent power by connecting you to military programs and support designed especially for military parents, like the New Parent Support Program and the Military and Family Life Counseling Program.