How to teach your kids body boundaries, consent to keep them safer throughout their lives

A tough topic, but starting age-appropriate lessons very young decreases chances of child abuse, research shows

SAN ANTONIO - – These days you hear the word ‘boundaries’ a lot when talking about well-being.

What does that mean?

Boundaries are rules or expectations you put in place that make you feel safe, respected or free to be yourself.

One type of boundary is consent, the ability and right to decide who is allowed in your personal space.

Parents and experts say it’s important to teach kids these concepts as early as possible, so they are less likely to be taken advantage of, either in relationships or by perpetrators.

This topic can be a difficult and uncomfortable thing to think about, but many people believe this is a major key to forming a future generation that is more confident, secure and free from abuse.

‘We’re teaching them how to be safe’

San Antonio mom Kati Zech embraces the love and chaos of motherhood, with a 4-year-old, 2-year-old and another due in the fall.

“I can lose sleep over thinking about safety and making sure we’re teaching them how to be safe,” Zech said.

That’s why she and her husband Jordan make time daily, to teach their little ones about physical boundaries.

It’s not an easy task with toddlers.

“My oldest son has a lot of energy and he is going to be more aggressive, playfully. And so we’re really trying to teach him to respect other people’s bodies. He’s okay if you want to come up and wrestle with him, but not every kid’s like that,” Zech said.

Her hope is that these teachings will allow him to also form his own boundaries.

“Then he’ll know if he doesn’t like something, he’s allowed to also say, ‘Hey, I don’t like that. Don’t do that,’” Zech said.

Those lessons come with simple yet specific body awareness.

“It’s even teaching them, ‘This is your body and these are the parts of your body that are just for you. Nobody else is going to touch them,’” she said.

Zech knows these concepts are worth teaching, because they will lead her kids to healthy relationships.

‘You can never read someone else’s mind’

That thought process is echoed by Dr. Jennifer Gunsaullus. She’s a sociologist, intimacy speaker, relationship coach, author, and survivor.

“There’s that basic body autonomy and body respect in others. It’s so simple and so profound,”

Animated and passionate, Gunsaullus focuses most on young adults and safe dating relationships.

“Talking to your teenagers about, ‘You can never read someone else’s mind. You can never assume what someone else wants or likes,’” she said.

Gunsaullus understands the things she’s teaching at a very personal level.

“I experienced situations and sexual contacts where I was feeling pushed and pushed and I said ‘I don’t want to do that’ and I was pushed and I said, ‘Alright I guess we’re doing this,’” she said.

At the time, she had a foundation built on boundaries, so she was able to understand that those boundaries had been violated.

“I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. I know I had clearly communicated that. Held him responsible and said, ‘what was that?’” she said.

Gunsaullus said that preparation and self-confidence can eliminate shame, which often festers into silence and a possible lifetime of trauma.

“When you set that up from a young age of being like, ‘No if anyone else does this, they are the bad one, not you.’ You don’t end up taking on that shame,” Gunsaullus explained.

Gunsaullus wants other young adults to have those skills too, with age-appropriate lessons.

“You start that at a young age, it is so normal to them that no one touches them without their agreement, and if someone does, they know it’s wrong and then they go talk to someone about it. That’s just their normal way of viewing the world and then they also know, ‘I don’t do that to anyone else,’” she said.

There are fun and easy metaphors she offers parents who are teaching young kids.

“I say, ‘Think about cats.’ Cats are really good about teaching consent. Dogs, not so much, because you can touch and they’ll take anything. But cats, they’ll let you know. They put up their boundaries. I remember a while ago our friend’s son was like, ‘Fluffy scratched me’ and they said ‘Well, what were you doing?’ ‘Petting fluffy’ ‘Did fluffy want to be pet?’ ‘No,’” Gunsaullus chuckled.

‘Embrace the awkward’

She coaches young adults on what to say when laying down their boundaries.

“Embrace the awkward! I can’t emphasize this enough. To put up a boundary is to say something like, ‘Oh no I don’t feel comfortable doing that because I want to enjoy this situation. I want to enjoy you, I want to be with you, and I want to feel comfortable,’” she said.

Embracing the awkward also goes for parents and caregivers trying to make sure older kids know how to be respected physically.

“Anything you’re afraid to talk about, say that. ‘I feel awkward doing this. I feel vulnerable. My parents didn’t do this for me but I love you so much, I want to do things differently,” Gunsaullus said.

That honesty creates confidence they can rely on when they go out into the world.

“They’re at a party, they’re in high school, they’re in college, they’re off on their own. You’ve taught them the skills of how to reflect on something in a situation, how to handle difficult things so they can make the healthiest choices for them,” Gunsaullus said.

Without these tools, kids can end up in some scary situations.

‘How can we prevent it if we’re not addressing it’

Now here’s the part when we talk about a subject that feels icky: child sexual abuse.

As uncomfortable as this topic is, society has to start talking about it, because that’s the first step to stopping it.

“How can we even prevent it if we’re not addressing it?,” said Randy McGibeny, the president and CEO of ChildSafe.

ChildSafe is a nationally recognized organization in San Antonio, that offers support to children who have been abused or traumatized.

McGibeny said getting into that uncomfortable space as adults could actually cause systematic solutions for our future generations.

“If we don’t address the issue and we’re not honest about saying words like child sexual abuse, we’re not normalizing the issue. We create a safer environment for children to feel like maybe they can come forward, that ‘I am going to be listened to, that I am going to be believed,’” McGibeny explained.

He said perpetrators prevail by silencing victims, so our voices are what will stop their crimes.

It all starts with prevention and the role parents or caregivers can play, starting when our kids are young.

“The evidence and the research shows that the earlier you start to have these conversations with young children, the better outcome it has for preventing child abuse,” McGibeny said.

Those age-appropriate lessons include learning the anatomical names of body parts, instead of using nicknames. That reduces body shame and allows kids to be very specific if they have to explain that someone violated them.

Other safety lessons mean breaking habits many people grew up with.

“We would leave my grandmother’s house and my parents would be like, ‘Oh, go give your grandmother a kiss or go give them a kiss’. That’s not necessarily a safe thing. It teaches children that they don’t have control over their bodies. And so what am I telling you? That I’m forcing you to go and hug or touch somebody, that maybe you don’t feel comfortable hugging or touching?” McGibeny said.

If kids clearly don’t want to give hugs and kisses, maybe ask them if they want a fist-bump or a wave instead. He said, give them a choice, and they’ll remember that.

“We’re not saying the way you grew up is wrong. It’s just we know better now about how to keep our kids safe. We know just through research,” he said.

That research has allowed ChildSafe to find solutions when it comes to prevention.

“We have a primary preventative program here at Child Safe, where we do go into the community and we will work with children around having those conversations. We will work with adults and teach adults how to have those conversations,” McGibeny said.

If you can’t make it in person, all you have to do is jump online.

“This is a live webinar,” McGibeny said showing the website. “So you’re going to actually be able to engage with our staff ask questions do those types of things. Oftentimes we’ll put a report a recorded webinar online as well.”

He also needs families to know, if abuse does happen, ChildSafe has so many resources.

Walking through the halls of ChildSafe, McGibeny said, “Every one of these are therapeutic offices here. We have about 16 full-time therapists.”

It’s a strong team that works to change the trajectory of children’s lives by treating trauma, as well as helping prevent it.

The entire goal is to promote healthy, beautiful relationships sooner than later.

“This will affect their careers. It’ll affect so many different parts of their life, if they can learn how to have boundaries for themselves and have boundaries with other people, then they’re going to succeed in a lot of different ways,” Zech said.

She feels better as a parent knowing she’s consistently doing all she can to prepare them for life’s experiences.

That’s all any parent can ask for: kids who grow up understanding themselves, respecting others, and being able to love safely and fully.

If you or a loved one is a sexual assault survivor, reach out now. Whether the abuse happened recently or years ago, help is waiting.

You can contact ChildSafe at (210) 675-9000, the Rape Crisis Center at (210) 349-7273, or call the national helpline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

Your strength in reporting can change the future for so many others.

About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

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