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.
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Boundaries can refer to a number of physical and emotional guidelines you establish for yourself. Physical boundaries can include the physical space between you and another person, the comfort you feel with physical touch, and the way you share and respect another person’s belongings. Emotional boundaries include unspoken rules of how you treat or speak to someone and how you expect to be treated in return. Emotional boundaries also allow us to identify and separate our needs, wants, opinions and emotions from others. Boundaries are healthy when we have identified our limits, we are confident with our choices and opinions, and we are able to stand up for ourselves when necessary if what is acceptable is threatened.
How do you lay the foundation for boundaries and consent with young children? First, you have to teach them about healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries are not too rigid (where we refuse to listen and grow), nor are they too loose (when we can’t say no to others or allow others to define what is right for us even if it feels wrong to us). Everyone has the right to set limits with others about what they do and don’t want to happen. For young children, boundaries and consent begin with asking for permission and understanding they, too, can expect to be asked for consent in return.
The best way for military families to show children healthy boundaries is to model it themselves – both with your children 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.
- Respect the spoken “yes” and “no.” 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. Mary can tell Tommy to stop pulling her ponytail as well, 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, the Military and Family Life Counseling Program and Thrive.