My husband, daughter, and I recently spent some time visiting family, many of whom my daughter did not remember from our last family vacation. They, of course, remembered her, and wanted to show their love and affection warmly and demonstratively. We’re a huggy kind of family, and my daughter’s cuteness seems like it’s demanding to be touched, so I can understand this impulse.
But my daughter, still on the young side of two, does not. When a well-meaning, but handsy, relative would come close, she would shrink into my body, burying her head in my neck and clinging to me so tightly that it required almost no effort on my part to hold her up.
I want my daughter to know and respect her own boundaries, both now and when she’s older. While she does pretty well setting them with other kids (“No, you no touch me!”), she is not yet comfortable articulating those boundaries clearly to unfamiliar (and again, well-intentioned) adults. It’s my responsibility to translate her reaction and intervene with something I’ve come to call “the consent game.”
Yes, consent. It’s all over the media these days with respect to teens, college students, and grown adults, and has a specific connotation related to sexual activity. But consent is about much more than sex; it’s about knowing in your gut whether someone’s behavior toward you and your person is okay or not okay and being able to say so. And for this, we can never start too young in helping children feel empowered in setting boundaries around their bodies. Certainly, there are times when I need to act quickly on my daughter’s body without obtaining permission, such as when her safety or health are at risk. But otherwise, I strive to either ask for her consent or let her know when I am going to put my hands on her person.
So, back to the game. Games can be a great way to engage cooperation among people of all ages, and can be a great shame-free way to introduce otherwise uncomfortable ideas (namely, “My daughter clearly doesn’t want you to be touching her in that way right now. Please stop.”). Here’s how this one goes:
Let the Game Begin
A round of the consent game begins whenever someone is touching or trying to touch my daughter in a way that she does not like. I know she does not like it because of her nonverbal cues (hiding, clinging, burying her head, etc.). I set up the “playing field” by inserting my body between my daughter and the other person, usually holding her on the opposite side of my body to where the other person is standing.
Introducing the Players
Next, I’ll narrate both people’s intentions and feelings, emphasizing good will and benevolent intent:
To the relative: You really want to say hello and give hugs!
To my daughter: And you aren’t ready yet – looks like that was too much for your body!
To both: How can we work this out? (I might tilt my head to the side and scratch it dramatically, if I have a free hand.)
Suggesting Alternative Moves
Here’s where things can get delightfully silly. I’ll ask my daughter if certain kinds of touches on certain body parts are okay or not, starting small and working our way up from there.
Can uncle kiss you on your hand? Yes or no?
An extended hand and an enthusiastic “yes” mean, “Go for it!” A vocalized “no” and a hidden hand mean, “I’m not ready yet.” The latter might need some translation for the relative, as well as yet another alternative, even less threatening move.
Oh, you’re not ready for a kiss on the hand! Would you like to touch fingers with uncle? Yes or no? (I might demonstrate a finger touch and add a silly sound effect.)
If the first alternative move was a success, I might continue the game:
Can uncle kiss you on your elbow? Yes or no?
Can uncle kiss you on top of your head? Yes or no?
Again, at each step, I’m facilitating respect of my daughter’s autonomy, boundaries, body, and personal space.
Removing a Player
Sometimes a well-meaning, yet insistent relative will have a hard time getting repeated “No” messages from my daughter, continually violating her personal boundaries and repeatedly trying to touch her body after she has made it abundantly clear that she is not up for it.
In cases like these, I’ll need to remove a player from the game.
I have the most control over my daughter, so the simplest thing to do is to keep her away from the relative in question by either physically blocking their further interactions (placing my body between them), or by offering a convenient parental excuse to make a swift exit (“Oop, time for a diaper change!” is a handy example).
In other instances, depending on the relative’s receptivity, I might set a boundary firmly but gently, and offer a non-physical way of connecting.
She’s just not ready to be touched at all right now. Maybe another time. Say, I wonder if you know how to play peek-a-boo/sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider”/pretend to be a chicken?
Doing so keeps the potential for connection open, but allows for clear boundary setting and advocacy on behalf of my child.
The message is clear: unless her health or safety are at stake, she and she alone gets to decide who touches her body. Period.
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Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!