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Teaching children to respect personal boundaries

SINGAPORE — With recent news in international media on sexual assault and harassment cases at workplaces, and a #metoo social media campaign for people to share accounts of alleged abuse, it is an opportunity for parents to think about whether they want to talk about such issues with their children from a young age.

Teaching children to respect personal boundaries

Teaching children to respect personal space and boundaries, and to deal with inappropriate advances, helps them to decide for themselves when they are older, how to behave and respond in such situations. Photo Illustration: Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

SINGAPORE — With recent news in international media on sexual assault and harassment cases at workplaces, and a #metoo social media campaign for people to share accounts of alleged abuse, it is an opportunity for parents to think about whether they want to talk about such issues with their children from a young age.

As with most things in life, awareness of such issues should begin at home.

Teaching children to respect personal space and boundaries, and to deal with inappropriate advances, helps them to decide for themselves when they are older, how to behave and respond in such situations.

Ms Gisela Guttmann, a psychologist and psychoanalyst at Alliance Professional Counselling, said: “Setting boundaries are of foremost importance for a child’s development and safety. I usually say that boundaries are like safety nets. It is part of a parental duty of care to ensure that children understand how to respect and be respected, and keep safe.”

Dr Martha Tara Lee, clinical sexologist and relationship coach at Eros Coaching, said that children need to know what adults expect of them when it comes to appropriate behaviour. “This does not mean giving children lots of do’s and don’ts. Having too many rules, or rules that are too complicated, often confuse children. Decide as a family those things that are most important to you and state rules positively so that children know what to do rather than simply being told what not to do.”

An example of setting limits for children would be to give clear directions for what you expect of them (the “what”), and giving reasons for these directions, because it helps children accept your limits without becoming defensive (the “why”), she said. This helps them understand what you will expect of them in other situations and trains them to make their own decisions over time.

DON’T FEEL ASHAMED

Dr Lee also recommended that conversations about boundaries start for children as young as pre-school age, and to then build on it as the child grows.

This way, rather than thinking of it as one big conversation, it turns into multiple bite-sized, age-appropriate conversations.

These conversations could include topics about personal safety: What kinds of touches are okay and from whom, and what to do when a line is crossed.

It is certainly important to teach children to identify inappropriate conduct. “(This means) anything that makes them feel uncomfortable should not take place,” Ms Guttmann said. “(Parents) should encourage children not to feel ashamed if someone else makes inappropriate advances, and under those circumstances, they must seek help from a teacher, parent or any trusted adult.”

Dr Lee proposed making a list with your child of who they could confide in in such situations, while Ms Guttmann recommended that parents also explain to children that, sometimes, some adults can behave inappropriately.

Dr Lee also suggested using basic language when speaking with young children. For example, teach your child that anything covered by a bathing suit is considered private.

Use anatomically correct language when talking about body parts. Or get librarians specialising in children literature to recommend age-appropriate books as aids for your discussions.

Parents should also be forthright when giving examples of appropriate versus inappropriate touch.

“It’s important to help children recognise that there are a whole range of behaviours that constitute sexual abuse,” Dr Lee said. “Sexual abuse refers to any forced or tricked sexual touching by an adult or older child, as well as non-touching offences like flashing, peeping, obscene phone calls, and showing pornography to a child."

POSITIVE MALE ROLE MODELS

When it comes to boys, Dr Lee believes it is essential to have positive male role models in their lives who constantly reinforce values such as honesty, integrity and doing no harm to others.

She also suggested going on mother-son dates to teach your boy to be gracious and respectful, such as opening doors for others and engaging in conversations with a woman. Encourage him to develop friendships with girls as well as boys.

Ms Guttman has more advice on teaching boys how to respect women’s boundaries: “They should be taught that a ‘No’ is always a ‘No’ and furthermore, a double ‘Yes’ is required for any type of romantic or sexual engagement. If they are ever in doubt as to how to behave and act around girls, it is safer to be on the more conservative side.”

For older children in their teens, they are often subject to peer pressure and premature sexual behaviour. “Parents should explain to them that they should never feel compelled to follow peer pressure in this regard or to give in to others’ advances,” she added.

WARNING SIGNS

Most importantly, make sure children know that whatever happens is never their fault. Parents should also validate their children’s feelings so that they learn to trust their own instincts.

Be on the lookout for warning signs of possible sexual abuse.

Dr Lee listed some to watch for: Nightmares or sleeping problems; children becoming withdrawn or very needy, becoming unusually secretive, having outbursts of anger; changes in eating habits; self-harm; and unaccountable fear of places or people.

“Other warning signs could be new symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor performance in school or disinterest in activities they used to enjoy,” she added.

“Don’t be dismissive if a child no longer wants to go to football practice or expresses a sudden dislike for a coach or teacher. Take it seriously and find out why.”

Get help if needed, Ms Guttmann said. “If a parent ever suspects that a child was sexually molested, they should try to ask non-judgmental questions and be open,” she added. “If a child is reluctant to open up to the parent, they should seek professional help from a counsellor or psychologist.”

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