For children with disabilities, social interactions can be fraught. They can be subjected to unwanted, inappropriate or excessive touch and questions from other children, as well as adults around them!
At the same time, if they are unaware of social norms, or cannot fully understand them, these children may also ask others inappropriate questions. They may also touch, hug or seek affection from others in ways that can be surprising, forceful or unwanted.
Learning about boundaries can help keep children with disabilities safe from those who might harm or take advantage of them. It also makes it easier to interact with others.
So what are boundaries?
Boundaries are set limits for interacting with other people, or rules that are followed because they are considered acceptable by others. There are several categories of boundaries, but this article will mainly discuss the following:
- Physical boundaries involve personal space, comfort with touch, and being able to address physical needs like food, water and rest.
- Sexual boundaries involve consent, respect and privacy.
- Emotional boundaries involve respecting your feelings and others’ feelings. This includes knowing how much to share about emotions, the right people to approach, and understanding how much emotional energy you can handle at any one time.
- Material boundaries involve how you treat your personal items and possessions, how you choose to share them with others, and how you expect those items to be treated by others when you share them.
- Intellectual boundaries involve respect for ideas, thoughts and curiosity (as long as those opinions do not hurt you or other people).
- Time boundaries involve prioritising time for tasks, and the limits you set on time spent on other people.
Why are boundaries important?
Boundaries help to preserve our dignity. They let us feel secure and confident around other people.
Knowing and respecting other people’s boundaries also helps to build healthy relationships with them. For example,
- Getting physically too close to other people can scare them or make them feel uncomfortable. Respecting other people’s personal space makes it easier to interact.
- An aggressive or physically hurtful child will find it difficult to make friends. By finding other ways to express their emotions, or even to walk away from situations before they are overwhelmed, they will find it not just easier to befriend others, but also find confidence in themself.
- school rules about staying in certain areas or not touching certain objects help keep students safe.
Strong boundaries also keep a child safe from abuse. If they know what an inappropriate interaction or touch looks like, and they know who to approach for help, it helps to prevent further harm from occurring.
How should I teach my child about boundaries?
Teach your child about safe and unsafe touch
It’s important for a child to know
- the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch
- which body parts are private and are not to be touched
- that they can refuse touch they do not want
- that they can ask for touch they do want (such as a hug, or a high five instead of a kiss)
Our interactions with others often involve physical contact like kisses, hugs, high fives and so on. But we interact with our family, friends and strangers in different ways. We wouldn’t allow a stranger to give hugs like a family member might. You can discuss with your child the proper ways to interact with people who are close to you and those who aren’t.
Model good behaviour
In modeling, a teacher or other adult demonstrates a concept while the child learns by watching. You can demonstrate different kinds of touch to your child and show them how they can apply in different situations.
Roleplay and social stories
Two or more people can act out a scenario as students observe and ask questions. You can use toys or dolls as well. Show the child scenarios they may be familiar with from
- family visits
- visits to public places
- special events
Explain consent to the child
While there are many situations in which consent can be expressed, it is extra important that a child understands what physical consent is. Nobody should be touched, kissed or hugged if they don’t want to be touched, or do not give permission to be touched.
Adults can help with this by not forcing physical interaction on a child, asking for a kiss or hug, or telling them what they are going to do (e.g. “I’m going to use this cream on your hurt knee”).
Show your child what makes a good friend or family member
Your child will learn what is considered acceptable behaviour from you and other adults. Model what kind of touch, behaviour and interaction is appropriate for them. Enforce these limits in a firm but loving way.
Teach your child what they can do if they feel their boundaries are violated
If your child has been touched inappropriately, they should
- say NO, STOP, or I DON’T LIKE THAT in a loud voice or with body language
- move away from the situation
- tell a trusted adult and keep on telling until an adult asks how they can help.
Practice the saying ‘no’ before it becomes needed, and discuss with your child who trusted adults might be in a particular situation.
Your child may end up saying ‘no’ to a family member, close friend or guardian. They should not be shamed, scolded or ridiculed for this reaction. They are learning to protect and enforce their own boundaries.
When everyone understands the importance of boundaries and how to respect them, we can make social interaction easier and safer for everyone.
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