Pediatric Massage Therapists must be more aware of personal boundaries than LMTs practicing on most other client populations. Of course, working on babies, kids, and adolescents, is challenging. Compound that with the real specter of child abuse, and you can see why such a concern exists.
Children of all ages benefit from Massage Therapy in so many ways. Touch is essential to the proper development of kids, socially, mentally, and emotionally. Along with this is the idea that there is “safe touch” and “unsafe touch” (formerly referred to as”good” and “bad”, however these terms can be misleading), and Massage Therapy can help kids strengthen their personal boundaries, helping them to differentiate. Kids learn that safe touch is therapeutic. It is never imposing. The child is in control of the session, and has the power to ask for a certain area to be worked more, less, or not at all.
This is a key concept I try to get kids to understand, even before we begin the first session. I tell them that it is their session, and they should be comfortable at all times. Of course, I then ask numerous times if the pressure is OK, if the technique is helpful, and whether they’re comfortable.
Children of all ages like having this power and enjoy exercising it. There are so many times kids are powerless in the face of authority: Teachers, parents, elders, religious leaders, and even older siblings can all keep kids from feeling autonomous and in control of situations.
“Unsafe Touch” is something kids already know about. It refers to (inappropriate) touch that is in violation of their personal boundaries and comfort. We teach our kids to be fearful of strangers and that no one should be touching them in any way in their private area. This is a good thing. Children must be empowered to understand that their body is their own and no one else’s.
This also helps later in life, as kids become young adults. By the time kids are dating, they must know this, and know it well. They must trust and respect their own feelings and intuition about a situation.
Aiding kids in becoming more assertive about enforcing their boundaries is key. This one lesson can prevent your child from being abused in so many ways, now and as an adult. Assertiveness is a quality every child must develop, and will help them throughout their lives.
Learning that they have the right to say, “No!” to anyone, in any position, violating, or attempting to violate, their boundaries may be one of life’s most vital lessons. Kids must further know that it’s not only perfectly acceptable to tell parents about any boundary violations, but that it may save their lives.
Kids learn that “safe touch”, or “good touch”, includes Grandma holding them and kissing their cheek, Mom or Dad hugging them close, and other socially acceptable, normal modes of tactile communication. Essentially, that’s what touch is: Another way we communicate with one another, sometimes more deeply than words. “Safe Touch” also may include Massage Therapy, chiropractic care, or even a visit to the physician. However, kids need to understand – and clearly – that even trusted loved ones, or even health care professionals, still do not have the right to touch them in places that are off limits.
I think we do a good job of teaching our kids about abuse and sexual exploitation. Even if make them overly cautious, in no way is this a hazard to their development. We do live in a touch-averse culture here in America. This may be a reaction to child exploitation, but parents must know that they can be affectionate with their kids. All touch is not bad, and without differentiating good from bad touch, kids will end up confused. This lesson must be explained carefully and clearly. Good touch must be demonstrated, or else kids will be starved for touch.
If you are so touch-averse that you would not save a child struggling in the waves because you are afraid to hold her hand and pull her out of the waves, that is not good. Believe it or not, this was my own experience, long before a becoming a CPMT. While respecting boundaries is wonderful, understanding that “Safe Touch” exists prevents such confusion. “Safe Touch” is helpful, respectful, and kind. “Safe Touch” may be an expression of love by parents. It may also be Therapeutic or life-saving, as when a lifeguard pulls a child from the water, or when a doctor performs an examination.
When traveling by air, kids may be subject to screening at airports. It is imperative that this situation is explained fully beforehand, during, and after. Let kids ask questions. This is serious. We train our kids to enforce their personal boundaries, but then, a person in authority, a stranger that they do not know, is permitted to touch them, even where we tell them, repeatedly, no one should ever touch them. This creates confusion, and may actually prime kids for abuse by authority figures. We learn by situations and by life. John Dewey, the famed American educator, fully understood the value of real-life experience and how it affects the learning process.
This situation has an extremely high potential to befuddle kids. They may even come away from this all thinking that any authority figure improperly touching them may do so at will. You must be clear; you must explain why the screenings are done, how it protects our safety, and how this is very different than exploitative situations. You may try role playing with your kids, helping them to learn by play.
Children must come away with the full comprehension that this is a unique situation, and Mom and Dad are right there. The same should be done at the doctor’s when an exam requires the doctor to examine the child’s private area. Kids must know these are unique situations, and that when Mom or Dad aren’t present, it is never acceptable. Otherwise, a few stress-filled minutes at an airport can undo your painstaking efforts to raise your kids with an appreciation of their autonomy and right to enforce their physical boundaries.
Respecting one’s own physical boundaries is just the first step for children’s empowerment. Kids must also understand that they have mental, emotional, and spiritual boundaries, that they are a unique individual entitled to control their own destiny. Without such an understanding, your child may end up emotionally, physically, or even sexually abused. Further, kids must learn HOW to enforce their boundaries.
It begins with leaning to say, “No!” to anyone, and ends with knowing telling parents of any attempted boundary violations, by anyone, even peers, is something that is important. Raising assertive kids should be the goal of all parents. Sadly, many do not even know this is important, simply because they have no familiarity with the concept.
This is a lifelong lesson that will help us forge a nation of leaders, boys and girls who will grow into tomorrow’s men and women, Americans who are fearless, and know their rights. It also helps kids to grow up respecting the boundaries of others. All in all, I can think of no more important lesson. As a former educator, I know that mastery of subject matter, development of analytical thinking skills, and memorization are secondary to these goals.
Because I saw the need to teach kids about assertiveness, I am forming Assertive Kids , a nonprofit foundation tasked with empowering kids by assertiveness education. Please visit our web site for details or to donate.
(C) 2017 H Miller, D Alban. Authored by D Alban.