Boundaries and self-esteem: how caregivers can encourage life-long empowerment for their children
There's a magical moment when we are infants and discover where another’s body ends and ours begins. More literally the separateness starts when our umbilical cord is cut and we truly become our own bodily mechanism. Our own entity. Early on, we begin to determine what is our touch versus another’s, something that experts call self-world differentiation. In fact, by the time we are four months old we begin selecting what we do and do not want to touch. In an interview with Scientific America, researcher Anne Bigelow describes that, “…early understanding of self and early understanding of other is developed through interaction. It teaches babies basic lessons that they have some agency in the world… as opposed to just being helpless to whatever happens to them.” A crucial form of this interaction is skin to skin contact. Touch is an essential component to overall development, and the mechanism from which we begin to develop our earliest sense of self
Self-esteem is how we define our worth, and developed through knowing that we have a choice in how we treat ourselves and how others treat us. What we need in order to acquire healthy self-esteem is experience making choices about our own bodies and confidence that the choices will make us feel good about ourselves. Even at a very young age, these choices are a matter of both safety and enjoyment in life. If we need that sense of control over our environment early on, in order to feel safe and confident, why is that adults seem to avoid talking about boundaries and consent until children are well into adolescence? And why only in the context of romantic or sexual relationships? Let us back it up a bit, shall we?
The data is clear that encouraging infants and children to create their own boundaries for touch facilitates healthy development and relational success throughout life. And as a bonus, it comes with the relief that talks about consent by parents and caregivers do not have to wait until it has to do with sexual intimacy. Caregivers can and should facilitate everyday, age-appropriate, and applicable conversations that encourage safety and self-esteem throughout life. These conversations prepare children for making some more challenging decision about touch later in life. Below is a template you can use to give these early conversations a try:
Create a context: Children need to understand the nature of context. For example, here are the situations in which it is acceptable to do X, and here are the situations in which it is unacceptable to do X. Talking about context is preferable to saying that something is always bad. Framing behaviors in terms of contexts also helps kids adhere to social guidelines without experiencing shame. By talking about contexts, children learn that certain types of touch are not allowed in certain locations or with certain people, rather than it is bad to touch or that they are a bad person for touching.
Provide options: Knowing that there are choices for the types touch that children can give and receive helps children:
1) foster a sense of autonomy and confidence.
2) trust their internal cues for safety and enjoyment of touch.
This also means teaching them how to advocate for options, though developing the language of “can I have a _____ instead” or “I do not like ____ but I do like ____”. Consider talking with children about what types of touch they do and do not like, before they have to decide.
Model your own boundaries: Providing children with insight about how you read your internal cues and preferences can help children learn useful language for describing their own. It can also help them learn empathy through tuning in to another person’s experiences and facial and body cues. For example, offer some commentary when other people touch you or when you touch yourself, such as, “I do like how it feels when my body is held here but not here.”
Stay consistent: Keeping the same messages allows children to know that the rules of personal choice matter regardless of the context or person. For example, children have a right to choose how the say to goodbye to someone (hug, high-five, no touch, etc.) regardless if it is a grandparent or classmate.
A great aspect of encouraging boundaries and self-esteem across a child’s development, and into adulthood, is it follows what they are already doing! From infancy, children are looking to become “embodied bodies”: to be seen, felt, and understood by others. The synergy of helping children experience wanted and enjoyable touch while helping them seek it, as well, is that it promotes self-awareness and a positive relationship with touch. This foundation of empowerment paves the way for children to become better advocates for their needs and their safety throughout life. That way, when the topic of touch becomes about sexual intimacy, children are already well equipped to know how to advocate for their own safety and enjoyment while reading the cues of others, as well.
Above is a great place to start, but if you are looking for more check out the articles below: