We had a third birthday party for my son over the weekend, and the combination of "joyous occasion" and lots of random family members and friends reminded me of a very important concept.
How many times have you seen someone (or possibly done this yourself) ask a child to show affection to someone they don't really know?
And how many times have you seen that child being cajoled into giving that affection after they have declined either through body language (closing off the arms, turning away, etc.) or just saying "no"?
Chances are the answer to both of these questions is: "plenty of times."
So what's the big deal? It's just Great Grandma June, and that's going to be a super cute photo op for the baby book, right?
Well, on the surface both of those are true. I'm sure Great Grandma June is a wonderful person who loves your little one to death (even though they've only met once).
And this could be a cherished photograph of several generations together. However, what message does this send to the child? It's not your decision who you give affection to? Your self-imposed boundaries don't matter?
It's something to think about. It's called consent, and it makes all the difference in the world.
I could do an entire post (or several) about the different types of consent and how to ask/give it, but we'll save that for another day and focus on just saying "no" for now.
We want our children to stay safe and to know how to take care of themselves, especially when we are not around.
A great foundation for this is to teach them that they can control who they give affection to, and that it's okay to say "no".
In fact, "no", is a complete sentence.
We don't owe anyone an explanation for our boundaries (or our children's boundaries). There's probably some social pressure to get the child to comply with the hug, or at the very least, to say something like "she's just shy" or "he didn't have a nap today".
This is not necessary. "No", is enough.
If our children are taught that they don't have to acquiesce to the demands for affection from strange adults, and if they are empowered to say "no" when they feel uncomfortable, it will be that much easier for them to use these experiences to help them if they are ever approached by a sexual offender.
They will be less easy to groom, and their responses and natural habits will convey a message of awareness and confidence. A lack of awareness, and the ingrained social "niceties" that we are all brought up with are what predators are banking on when they attempt to start grooming a potential victim.
Let's take this discussion of "no" and personal physical boundaries one step further.
If you've known someone who has been through a physically traumatic event (physical or sexual abuse or assault), you may have noticed they might not like or respond to physical touch in a positive way. A well meaning and sporadic hug (a reaction anyone with appropriate empathy could reasonably believe to be well received) might be met with a stiffened posture, a quick step back, or even a slight "freeze" (standing very still, eyes wide, etc.).
The simple act of asking first, "you look like you could use a hug", or the body language invitation (arms held wide), could be just the thing to help them accept the physical support and begin to re-establish their confidence in their own physical boundaries.
Both the hug, and the meaning behind asking permission, would be therapeutic. And conversely, if the offer is denied, accepting that denial as a perfectly reasonable choice, while still valuing them as a friend/family member/etc, can be equally empowering and help the healing process. They are being allowed to express (or not) consent. Something that was taken away in those traumatic moments.
These are such simple yet calculated ways of communicating respect for our children's and any survivor's autonomy. Slight changes in the way we interact can have such huge impacts.
Never underestimate your ability to make a difference!
I hope I can continue to interact with my children, and really anyone in my life, so purposefully. After all, it's going to be a long summer full of pool parties and barbecues, so lots of "great grandmas" and opportunities to practice!
If you need help practicing saying "No" or responding when your child is being pressured, please log in to any of our chatrooms and practice with our trained facilitators and fellow survivors!