My younger brother and I had a great talent for getting on each others nerves during long car rides. Generally, we got along very well…until the personal space boundary was crossed. Even if it was a finger in my face with the taunt, “I’m not touching you!” I tended to react as though someone had just thrown me out of the vehicle…after kicking my puppy and insulting Disney princesses. As a kid, I was not yet able to shrink my continental-sized personal bubble. In the case of my brother and I, we were acting like nearly every other pair of siblings. My parents were always good at reminding us to keep our hands to ourselves and respect each others personal space (even if mine was, admittedly, ridiculously large when it came to my little brother).
Parents ought to teach their children about appropriate social behavior, including understanding the concept of “personal space”. This will vary within each culture, of course; there are people who feel uncomfortable with hugs and there are people who feel uncomfortable with the absence of hugs. Either way, children need to understand that they do not have a right to do anything to another person’s body without that person’s consent. And, of course, the reverse is also true. Children need to understand that they have a right to choose how and when they will be touched, whether that is being tickled, being picked up, or giving good-bye kisses. There are countless resources to help parents talk to their children about personal boundaries and appropriate behavior.
In the process of helping children understand appropriate behavior, we hope that the adults around them understand and exhibit appropriate behavior, as well. Sometimes, however, that does not happen. There are adults in the world who are oblivious to social or physical boundaries whether they interact with other adults or children. They lack the “filter” which enables most people to not say or do awkward things in public. That does not automatically make them child abusers by any means! You know which relative to avoid at family reunions if you do not want kissed. Still, it is important for parents and caregivers to be able to recognize behavior which could either make a child uncomfortable or increase their risk of being abused.
Two examples of inappropriate adult behavior during my own adolescence: 1) I was climbing onto the team bus after a high school basketball game. The principal of the school was driving and, as I passed his seat, I felt his hand firmly pat my rear end. We discovered after his dismissal that he had a habit of making students feel uncomfortable. Was this man a perverted sexual predator? Probably not…I have no idea. However, whether he realized what he was doing or not, I felt violated and became uncomfortable at school. 2) A piano instructor in college had a certain proclivity to being overly charming. Since he was an older man, most people laughed it off as eccentricity. But when he sat next to me at the piano and played a guessing game with my weight, a line was crossed. My family and I laughed about his total lack of social awareness later but in the moment, as he was eyeing me up so he could tell me how much I weighed, I was incredibly uncomfortable (and incidentally stopped my lessons shortly after). I was already battling borderline anorexia so having a man draw attention to my weight was doubly humiliating.
Awkwardly enough, he guessed correctly.
Children and teens have countless encounters with adults throughout the day – coaches, teachers, babysitters, visiting relatives, parents, parents of friends, Sunday School teachers, bus drivers. Which “rated G” behaviors should a parent be cautious of? Is it fair to scold your mother when she chases your toddler down for kisses? When does an action toward a child move from uncomfortable (telling a child to give kisses and hugs) to inappropriate (forcing the child to give hugs and kisses) to violating (physical or sexual abuse)?
There are many warning signs of inappropriate and abusive behavior. If you suspect abuse, do not wait for the evidence before talking to your child about your suspicions. Keep the lines of communication open between yourself and your child. Invite trust so that, if and when something does happen, your child has the confidence to tell you about it.
Use this sample list of warning sign behavior from Stop It Now (also linked below) to assist in determining if a child you know may be the victim of abuse:
Behavior you may see in a child or adolescent
- Has nightmares or other sleep problems without an explanation
- Seems distracted or distant at odd times
- Has a sudden change in eating habits
- Refuses to eat
- Loses or drastically increases appetite
- Has trouble swallowing.
- Sudden mood swings: rage, fear, insecurity or withdrawal
- Leaves “clues” that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues
- Writes, draws, plays or dreams of sexual or frightening images
- Develops new or unusual fear of certain people or places
- Refuses to talk about a secret shared with an adult or older child
- Talks about a new older friend
- Suddenly has money, toys or other gifts without reason
- Thinks of self or body as repulsive, dirty or bad
- Exhibits adult-like sexual behaviors, language and knowledge
Signs more typical of younger children
- An older child behaving like a younger child (such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking)
- Has new words for private body parts
- Resists removing clothes when appropriate times (bath, bed, toileting, diapering)
- Asks other children to behave sexually or play sexual games
- Mimics adult-like sexual behaviors with toys or stuffed animal
- Wetting and soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training
Signs more typical in adolescents
- Self-injury (cutting, burning)
- Inadequate personal hygiene
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Sexual promiscuity
- Running away from home
- Depression, anxiety
- Suicide attempts
- Fear of intimacy or closeness
- Compulsive eating or dieting