Body Autonomy: What Your Child Should Know and How to Teach Them

by Katie Mitchell, Director of Training and Fidelity at the Appalachian Replication Project


As children grow and mature, it’s important for them to start learning about consent — setting their own boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others. It’s never too early to start talking about consent, but for younger kids, you might approach the topic by starting with the concept of body autonomy. Body autonomy is a person’s right to be in control of their body without pressure or coercion from others. Children with body autonomy are
• less likely to fall victim to sexual abuse and sexual assault, 
• less likely to experience intimate partner violence, and
• more likely to report any abuse they experience.

Doctors recommend seven steps for teaching your child body autonomy, and it’s okay to take as long as you need on each step. Not only could it be lifesaving information, but it will increase communication and trust between you and your child. 

1. Teach children the correct, anatomical terms for their body parts. Calling body parts nicknames might make your child think there is something shameful about their body. We use the words “heart,” “lungs,” “kidneys,” with no trouble; we need to practice saying “penis,” “vagina,” and “breasts” with comfort, too. In addition, kids who know how to refer to their body parts can communicate more clearly and effectively if they’ve been abused or are experiencing a medical problem. In this way, kids can feel empowered to speak up about what they are experiencing without shame, ridicule, or misunderstanding.  

2. Teach children that it is okay to say “no,” even to adults. It’s common to teach children to defer to grownups in all things, to respect their elders, and to comply with authority at all times. Unfortunately, some people will take advantage of this compliance. When we demand that kids hug their aunts, uncles, and grandparents, for example, we might be sending the message that kids should hug all adults. This practice deprives children of body autonomy. Teach your kids alternative ways of greeting friends and loved ones, like handshakes and highfives, and let your kids choose how and to whom they show affection. 

3. Teach children to ask permission before touching anyone else’s body. This is an age-appropriate step in teaching kids about sexual consent. One way that kids can ask permission from others is to say, “Can I give you a hug or a high five?” This allows the other person to say no or to choose one of two options. Getting in the habit of asking permission for hugs and high fives will make kids more likely to ask for sexual consent later in life. 

This video provides a clear explanation of how body autonomy and consent are related.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3nhM9UlJjc

4. Help children understand the difference between safe touch and unsafe touch. Children can be very trusting and compliant, especially toward adults or even older teens. Explain to your child that only medical professionals should be touching them in the genital area, only for a real medical purpose, and only with your permission and supervision. Beyond that, any touch that hurts, is scary, is unwanted, or just doesn’t feel right is an unsafe touch, and kids need to hear that it’s okay for them to say “no.”

5. Explain to kids that there are okay secrets and not-okay secrets. Keeping a surprise party a secret or asking a child not to tell their younger sibling the truth about Santa is one thing. However, if someone is telling your child not to tell you what they’re doing together, that’s not okay. It might start like this: “Hey, don’t tell your parents that we talked on the phone today,” and then progress to “Let’s meet at the mall, but don’t tell your mom, okay?” This is a common method of grooming children for abuse. Help your child understand the potential danger in keeping these kinds of secrets from you. 

6.  Teach children that if anything ever happens to their body that they don’t like, it is not their fault, and they will not be in trouble for telling — even if someone says that they will. This is a critical point, because when a child realizes they’re being abused, they need to know it’s safe to tell someone. You’ve taught them the correct terminology for describing the abuse, you’ve told them not to keep secrets from you, and now they need to know they can tell you without an angry or frightening reaction from you. Try to stay calm, listen to your child, and assure them you believe what they’re saying and you’ll help them. Here are some resources for next steps.

7. Have children list five adults they can turn to for help. As the timeless Nigerian proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Work with your child to identify your “village.” Include family members and people who are not relatives, like trusted neighbors, teachers, or parents of friends, and explain to your child that these are folks who will help at any time. The idea of your child choosing to confide in another trusted adult instead of you might make you uncomfortable, but the goal is to make sure your child is safe. Let people you trust be your support system. 

*You can read more about each step HERE.

This blog post was contributed by Katie Mitchell of SexEdVA, a division of James Madison University working to support sexual health education, family life programming, and positive youth development across Virginia. To inquire about partnering with them or to find out more, visit www.sexedva.org or email them at jmuarp@jmu.edu.

Published by Anchoring Hope

We are a small collective of counselors dedicated to distributing helpful, relatable content directly to your device! We also provide counseling services to those in Virginia & an anxiety training that can be accessed around the globe!

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