How par­ents’ own bias sends mixed mes­sages to their chil­dren

Great Health Guide - - CONTENTS - Dr Ash Nay­ate

The topic of body au­ton­omy has never been as rel­e­vant as it is to­day. It’s not sim­ply an ab­stract con­cept, but a way of liv­ing. Body au­ton­omy is where we ac­cept that our body be­longs to us and no one has the right to do any­thing to us or co­erce us into some­thing we don’t want to do. As well, we up­hold those same stan­dards for other peo­ple, re­spect­ing their right to body au­ton­omy. Sero­tonin, the best known ‘happy’ chem­i­cal, is pro­duced in the brain dur­ing ex­er­cise.

It’s heart-warming to see the num­ber of jour­nal­ists, authors and blog­gers who have ad­dressed this is­sue, par­tic­u­larly re­cently con­sid­er­ing the #metoo cam­paign and the in­creas­ing num­ber of pub­lic fig­ures who have per­pe­trated or ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual as­sault. Aware­ness of con­sent and body au­ton­omy is on the rise. How­ever, there is a vul­ner­a­ble sec­tion of the com­mu­nity who are re­ceiv­ing mixed mes­sages.


This is prob­lem­atic, con­sid­er­ing that chil­dren learn body au­ton­omy through their in­ter­ac­tions with adults. Chil­dren who ex­pe­ri­ence body au­ton­omy will be­come adults who prac­tice it. On the sur­face, there is plenty of par­ent­ing ad­vice around body au­ton­omy. For ex­am­ple, not forc­ing chil­dren to hug peo­ple if they don’t want to or not per­sist­ing with phys­i­cal games like tick­ling and wrestling if a child says ‘stop’. But body au­ton­omy is much more than our phys­i­cal bod­ies. For our chil­dren to know phys­i­cal bound­aries, they must rely on their thoughts and feel­ings as a nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem. After all, how do kids know if they want to hug some­one? They pay at­ten­tion to what’s hap­pen­ing in­side - their phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, emo­tional re­ac­tions and self-talk. Body au­ton­omy is grounded in emo­tional in­tel­li­gence, par­tic­u­larly em­pa­thy and re­spect. Teach­ing kids to recog­nise and re­spect their own feel­ings, al­lows them to re­spect and recog­nise it in oth­ers. As young­sters, we learn emo­tional in­tel­li­gence from the adults around us. If they know how to iden­tify, process and ex­press emo­tions in a healthy way, then we will learn through ob­ser­va­tion. So, teach­ing kids about body au­ton­omy re­ally means teach­ing them the emo­tion reg­u­la­tion skills, to be able to main­tain their own au­ton­omy and re­spect it in oth­ers.

THIS MEANS: 1. Teach­ing kids to recog­nise & la­bel their feel­ings.

Chil­dren who grow up with the lan­guage of emo­tion are more in tune with how they’re feel­ing, which helps them de­velop self-trust. In­tu­ition is valu­able when it comes to safety and be­ing emo­tion­ally savvy helps kids to cul­ti­vate that skill. It’s im­por­tant to dis­tin­guish dif­fer­ent emo­tions be­yond sim­ply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There are hun­dreds of emo­tions, like ‘ner­vous’,

Body au­ton­omy is grounded in emo­tional in­tel­li­gence, em­pa­thy & re­spect.

‘wary’, ‘com­fort­able’ and they are as­so­ci­ated with phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions that kids can read­ily iden­tify. Th­ese are the feel­ings of un­easi­ness in the pit of their stom­ach or prick­li­ness when all the hairs on the back of their neck stand up.

2. Show­ing our kids that we re­spect their feel­ings.

We of­ten tell our chil­dren to re­spect the feel­ings of oth­ers. But, kids can only do that if they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced it for them­selves. Kids de­velop a tem­plate for how to treat oth­ers, based on how they them­selves are treated. It’s not just re­spect­ing the words ‘no’ and ‘stop’, it’s also re­spect­ing the feel­ings they share with us, like hurt, sad­ness or anger. If our child is in tears be­cause her favourite blue spoon is dirty, it’s more help­ful to say, ‘you seem an­gry and dis­ap­pointed that you don’t have your spoon’ rather than, ‘get over it, what’s the big deal?’ If our child has a mi­nor tum­ble and be­comes up­set, it’s more help­ful to say, ‘that re­ally both­ered you’ rather than, ‘you’re not hurt, you’re OK’. When we dis­re­spect our chil­dren’s feel­ings, we teach them that their feel­ings aren’t re­li­able and to trust oth­ers’ opin­ions of their body, in­stead of their own.

3. Al­low­ing our kids to ex­press thoughts & emo­tions, safely.

Many of us don’t know how to ex­press our emo­tions - whether they’re pleas­ant or un­pleas­ant. Emo­tions them­selves are OK, al­though the ex­pres­sion of them might not be. Anger is OK, throw­ing plates at peo­ple’s heads is not. Learn­ing the skills of healthy emo­tional ex­pres­sion means that chil­dren are bet­ter able to com­mu­ni­cate their bound­aries to oth­ers. How­ever, this might re­quire some self-ed­u­ca­tion on our part, if we’re not equipped with healthy emo­tion reg­u­la­tion skills our­selves. Many par­ents in­ad­ver­tently send mixed mes­sages about body au­ton­omy, sel­f­re­spect and self-trust. Our mo­ti­va­tions are sin­cere, our ac­tions stem from our love for our kids and our de­sire to keep them safe. If body au­ton­omy is a goal for our chil­dren, it’s well worth ex­am­in­ing our own be­hav­iour, to iden­tify ar­eas of im­prove­ment. In the words of Maya An­gelou, ‘When you know bet­ter, do bet­ter’.

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