with Psychotherapist Jess VanderWier
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- Consent For Kids
- The Importance Of Consent
- Types Of Consent To Teach
- Talking To Relatives Who Don’t Respect Kids’ Boundaries
How old were you the first time you heard the word consent used in connection with your body? For a lot of us, it was the tail end of some really bad high school video. But teaching kids consent—both that they own their body and are in charge of who touches and respecting others boundaries—can start a lot earlier than that. Psychotherapist Jessica VanderWier will help us understand what consent looks like for kids and how to teach it early on.
Consent for kids is about them feeling like they have control over their bodies. Giving them this autonomy makes them less vulnerable to abuse. “They have control over their bodies and who is touching them,” Jessica said.
This isn’t something our parents really worried about, so knowing where to start can be a struggle. “We can start building a culture of consent in our homes as babies,” Jessica explained. “When we go back to babies, let’s use anatomically correct names.”
But a lot of parents don’t even know the anatomical names for their body parts, so teaching it would be hard.
The Importance of Consent
It’s important for kids to know their body parts, so they know what’s private and what’s theirs, and what’s not okay to touch or for someone else to touch. “Your child is going to be curious, and they’re going to try to find out the answer.” Jesisica said. “Wouldn’t we rather it be from us, in our home, in a way we can present the information?”
There are worse ways for them to find out. You can’t control and might not even know about the information they get if they have to go ask a friend or depending on their age look it up online. “They’re going to get the information, just let it be from us first,” she said.
You can teach consent to small children by respecting their space.
My oldest son has always been cuddly, but he got to an age where he didn’t want kisses anymore. This is my baby, and I’d love to be all up in his squishy face giving him kisses, but I have to respect his boundaries. He’s six now so when Mommy gets kisses, he wants to be in control of that. And that’s okay.
It sends a message when kids understand not even their parents can touch their bodies without their consent. “If somebody else would try to enter that space, they would know that’s not okay, and they would come and talk to you about it,” Jessica explained.
Learning their “no” and how to assert themselves is a piece of it, but safe touch is also a big piece of it. Jessica told me, “I say the whole body is a private space. It’s yours and you have control of who touches it.” She also explains to kids that no one should ever show them any area covered by a swimsuit.
This can really freak parents out. Sometimes they feel like they’re taking their kids’ innocence away by discussing these things, but really you’re protecting it. By having these difficult conversations, you’re giving your child the power to know when something isn’t right and say something about it.
Jessica calls it “body safety,” and I think that’s a good way to approach it.
“They studied children, and children who knew the anatomically correct names for body parts were less likely to be abused. And when they also studied perpetrators of abuse, perpetrators were less likely to target children who knew the anatomically correct names of their body parts,” Jessica explained. “What we’re thinking is they know that those children have had those conversations with their parents. And the children will be more likely to tell their parents exactly what happened.”
Types of Consent To Teach
In addition to teaching our kids their body is private and they control who touches it, we have to teach them to respect other people’s boundaries as well.
This can be interesting with siblings who have different thresholds for what is acceptable. My oldest kid has a big bubble. My middle son is rough and tumble with no bubble. You’d have to be shaking him for him to notice you’re in his space, and then he’d like it.
When these two play together, there’s a constant conversation about how much touch is too much, and if you hear someone saying “Ow,” they’re probably not okay with that level of pressure or touch.
Jessica’s oldest daughter loves to treat her toddler like a baby. And like all toddlers, the younger sister hates being treated like a baby. She has to remind her older daughter that her little sister doesn’t like that.
For neurodivergent kids—and any kid who is ready to tantrum or already tantruming—it can be difficult to teach them in the moment. Their impulse control isn’t there, and they may not be calm. “I like to teach them when they’re teachable,” Jessica explained.
She recommended waiting until everyone is calm and doing some role playing. You can get the siblings to do this together, or you can be part of the role play if you need to. This doesn’t have to be super serious. “You can make it fun,”she said.
“Have one person make a certain kind of face and say, ‘Does that face mean stop? Does it mean keep going, or does that face mean maybe?’ And the other child can try to determine if that means to keep playing,” she suggested. You can also strengthen impulse control with games like red light.
It’s important to teach our kids about consent, but it’s also important to make sure we don’t associate shame with the body. It’s natural for kids to explore their bodies. Girls find things to rub against. Boys may hump or rub against things.
It’s not sexual for them. They’re exploring their bodies and learning there are sensations from it, but they don’t associate meaning to it like we do. If it’s becoming public, you can talk to them about how it feels and remind them that things that involve our private parts belong in private spaces.
Talking To Relatives Who Don’t Respect Kids’ Boundaries
If grandparents are upset that your kids won’t give them a hug, it can be important to figure out what they’re actually upset about. It’s probably more than they just feel disrespected. They may feel like you disagree with the way they raised you. They made you hug your grandparents, and you turned out okay. Why can’t their grandkids just give them a hug?
Hugging is also a way to connect with their grandkids, so they may feel disconnected. It can be really helpful to say, “Why don’t you take him to the park? He loves to connect like that.”
These conversations can be hard to have, and coming out of COVID, we’re probably having more than before. But we can get through it by priming our friends and family that our kids may have different touch levels coming out of COVID.
Modern day parenting is hard. We feel the need to be experts at social justice, women’s rights, consent, keep our kids alive through a pandemic, and resocialize them after it. But we’re raising an incredible generation of humans that will be equipped with tools we didn’t have..
Keep showing up, mamas. You’re doing a great job.
If you still feel you need help with handling conversations around consent or if you are struggling to manage in motherhood and you need someone to talk to, check out our Happy as a Mother Wellness Center. Schedule a Free Consult with a mom therapist from the comfort of your own home.
Jessica VanderWier is a Registered Psychotherapist who helps families understand and respond to their child’s “big feelings” with gentleness and respect. Jessica has a Master’s Degree in Counselling Psychology and has logged thousands of clinical hours supporting parents and their children. Through groups, presentations, and one-on-one clinical sessions Jessica has helped hundreds of parents restore peace to their home.
As the founder of Our Mama Village, Jessica uses her expertise to support parents through online courses, personalized coaching, and free resources.
- Jessica’s Course: Parenting Little Kids With Big Feelings
- Jessica’s Free Masterclass
- Book: Don’t Touch My Hair
- Navigating Intimacy After Children Workshop