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Consent and Body Autonomy: the importance of having this big conversation with little ones

The topic of body autonomy and consent has been in the foreground of my mind for the past few months.

It doesn't often get discussed, but it is certainly a very important conversation to have, particularly with kids. I see it in my work with young people in my practice: how trauma that people have experienced within their lifetimes tends to manifest in various forms of destructive or unhealthy patterns of behaviour. Much of the time the trauma that surfaces has been buried deep within the unconscious, partly because of defence mechanisms people employ, and partly because the "offence" was subtle enough that it went under society's radar. Ranging from almost imperceptible inappropriate touch, to forced hugs, to overt sexual abuse, the transgressions of boundaries that people endure as a result of a lack of body autonomy can cause lasting damage.

So what is body autonomy and why is it important? Broadly speaking, the term "body autonomy" refers to the right each person has to govern what happens to their body, without external influence. It sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? We all have a right to decide what happens to our bodies.

Unfortunately, it is far from a simple matter, especially when power differentials come into play: children versus adults, younger children versus older children. The sad fact is that those who are more vulnerable, such as children, are less likely to know and understand healthy bodily boundaries, and as a result they are more susceptible to being violated by others who have more power. The idea that they have a right to determine what happens to their body is often an abstract idea for children. They mostly do what they are instructed to do or what they see adults doing.

We need to be careful about what messages we send to our children — both verbally and behaviourally. For example, it can be confusing to children when we tell them that their bodies are their own, but at the same time make them hug or kiss that aunt or uncle. The message in that case is: "your body is your own, BUT, ultimately it's the adult who decides what happens to it".

This messaging tends to become the narratives that children create about various themes – and they tend to stick. What children learn and observe through direct messaging and indirect modelling from their parents becomes the blueprint they use for the rest of their lives. In a sense, they are "programmed". While it is possible to create new thoughts, ideas and beliefs later on in life, it is infinitely harder to "re-programme" someone's core beliefs as it is to teach them a concept from the very beginning. Thus the importance of having clear and honest discussions about body autonomy, consent, respect, and physical boundaries cannot be overstated. These conversations need to be had early... very early. As soon as the child is able to hold the idea of themselves as an individual person.

To many, this may sound a bit daunting. There may be a fear that having discussions about body autonomy may create undue awareness and curiosity about the topic (I have heard this multiple times). However, the reality is, most people would rather have their child demonstrate a healthy interest in gaining more knowledge about a particular topic than have them struggle with uncertainty, conflict, or being victimised due to a lack of understanding.

With that in mind, here are a few pointers for engaging kids in the discussion around body autonomy:

1) Watch their behaviour. Often children demonstrate interest in a topic through their actions. They may engage in a different kind of play, ask questions around a particular topic, or share a story about another child they've encountered. These are opportunities to check in with the child, help to clarify what is appropriate, and answer any questions they may have.

2) Have regular chats about body autonomy. Make it part of daily conversation. It doesn't have to be a taboo topic. In fact, the more we talk about it, the more we desensitize ourselves and our kids to the topic. The idea is to instill confidence through familiarity. Children are much more likely to express their discomfort appropriately when doing so is encouraged consistently.

3) Use props to explain. Children are concrete in their thinking. It's often easier to explain concepts as abstract as body autonomy through playing with dolls. Books are a great way to engage kids' brains around specific topics. Just ensure the books are age-appropriate for your child.

4) Demonstrate yourself. Be consistent with your own boundaries. Don't allow anyone (including your child) to overstep your physical boundaries. When it happens, act swiftly and be clear... "I don't like it when you pull my hair."

I have a daughter on the way. My first child. As a father-to-be, I'm not only obsessing over things like getting her pram, crib and car-seat ready. I also find myself thinking about what my daughter's view of the world will be. How she'll navigate it and what tools she'll use to do so. I need to provide those tools. As a future caregiver, my daughter's psychological and bodily integrity is absolutely my number one preoccupation; and it should be. Teaching my child about respecting hers and other's boundaries is not just about giving her the information. It is about showing her, through my actions, that she is valued and important. It is the most basic demonstration that she is loved.

My hope is that whoever reads this post will, at the very least, decide to be more intentional about teaching their little ones about the importance of consent and body autonomy.

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