Teaching Body Boundaries: It’s ok to say NO

Today’s post is about teaching your child to say “no.” I know what you’re probably thinking: nailed that one! We certainly have in our home. Despite Ben’s limited verbal ability, he’s able to shut me down all day long. Even if he really wants something, the reply to my request is usually a resounding “NO.” But here’s the thing: being able to say no is a very important skill, especially when it comes to body boundaries.

A few months ago, I had a moment that magnified the concept of body ownership in children with Down syndrome. Our ten year old daughter plays soccer with a wonderful group of girls who love Ben. One weekend after a particularly brutal loss, the girls were walking off the field with shoulders slumped. Without giving it a second thought, I told Ben to go give everyone a hug. The girls surrounded him anticipating one of his wonderfully squishy and heartfelt hugs. But he was not having it that day. I urged him, “Give some hugs! They feel sad!”. He ran away to avoid the group, and I then realized what I was doing – forcing him to give affection. Ben has a great ability to cheer people up, but he should get to decide when he wants to do so.

On the flip side, we often find that complete strangers tend to be overly-affectionate with Ben. What makes a person think my son with disabilities is public property when they’d never dream of hugging and kissing my other children? I tend to think there are several factors at play. There is the stereotype that people with Down syndrome are always happy. I’ve even heard it said they are angels put on this earth to spread unconditional love. While I very much value how Ben gives unconditional love so freely, I’m also trying to teach him to have appropriate personal boundaries. And let’s face it, he’s not an actual angel and neither is anyone else. I also believe some of the enthusiastic huggers we encounter in public are trying to show their unconditional acceptance of my child with disabilities by showering him with affection. It’s truly a sweet gesture, but what really shows acceptance is treating Ben just like any other child!

So how do we help reinforce appropriate body boundaries in young children with Down syndrome?

Respect your child’s NO and require others do the same. Take cues from your child’s body language and help him/her say “no” if you can tell he/she feels uncomfortable receiving affection. Even if it’s a familiar friend or loved one seeking a hug or kiss, allow your child to take the lead by saying “no” if that is how they feel. Help redirect the situation by suggesting a high-five or fist-bump instead. This isn’t about making rigid rules, but about giving your child the right to make a choice about their own body. Children with Down syndrome often receive many medical interventions and therapies requiring lots of physical touch. This can cause a child to become desensitized and overly-compliant to others touching them. This unique component makes it especially important that we reinforce body ownership whenever possible. Consistency in our actions and expectations is very important. In her book, Teaching Children with Down Syndrome About Their Bodies, Boundaries, and Sexuality, Terri Couwenhoven reminds us, “modeling is a critical component of teaching body ownership concepts. When body rights are respected and reinforced in the home, your child will have an easier time understanding these concepts.”

Establish and reinforce healthy boundaries. I think parents and caregivers of children with Down syndrome would agree that healthy peer relationships are one of our top priorities for our children. We also know our children will likely desire romantic relationships as they get older. Let’s give our kids the tools they need so they can find relational success now and in the future! Establishing healthy boundaries will help promote good relationships and provide protection against unhealthy situations. When your child understands his or her right to personal space, they are more likely to recognize when that space is being violated. One practical way we’ve done this in our own lives is by asking teachers and assistants to have our son sit next to them, in his own space, instead of on a lap. Sitting on a lap is seemingly harmless, but we want to be consistent in teaching Ben that he and others deserve personal space. We are also intentional in reinforcing age-appropriate boundaries, even if it means continual redirection and extra work on our part.

-Provide and model communication. I absolutely love this Daily Greeting Poster that helps children start their school day with autonomy by choosing how they want to be greeted by their friends. If your child uses an AAC device, be sure to practice ways to say “no” and offer alternatives such as a high-five. Ask your speech therapist to help write a social story about boundaries specific to your child. The book An Exceptional Children’s Guide to Touch: Teaching Social and Physical Boundaries to Kids does a great job addressing this issue with concrete, direct language.  Let me know what works for you and ways you’ve successfully implemented and communicated personal boundaries!

Many sexual assault prevention programs emphasize the importance of teaching children to say “no” and ask a safe adult for help when their personal boundaries are violated. As parents of children with limited vocabulary who may not fully grasp the nuances of boundaries, it is even more important to establish a family culture of respect that alerts potential perpetrators that you notice and are willing to call out when boundaries are crossed. A willingness to be vigilant on the seemingly small things will go a long way in preventing opportunities for sexual abuse. Talk about how and why you establish boundaries in your family. It’s likely that many people who care about your child have never considered how establishing healthy body boundaries now can help provide for safety and successful relationships later!

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