Most parents have been there (or dreaded the thought of being there). You’re with your child, and someone crosses their personal space threshold by touching your kid. If you’re anything like me, a million thoughts race through your mind at once. Do I say something? What do I say? How do you tell someone not to touch your kid? What if they get mad at me?
Confronting someone who has just violated a physical boundary with your child is not easy, whether it’s a family member, friend, or total stranger. It’s not uncommon to find yourself feeling bad about saying something, or trying to rationalize it by telling yourself that person means well. But if you’re trying to teach your child healthy boundaries and consent, you have to practice what you preach. This means sometimes doing the hard job of stepping up and saying something when an adult (or another child) violates their boundaries.
It’s one thing to let it slide when it happens to you, but you shouldn’t compromise your child’s well-being — particularly if they’re too young to speak up for themselves — because you feel bad. If you want your kid to know that their body is their own, this means setting boundaries and enforcing them. There are plenty of ways to tell someone not to touch your kid, and you may choose to use a different method in different situations.
1. Be Straightforward
What This Looks Like: Say, “Please don’t touch my child without asking,” or, “They don’t like it when people touch them.”
Why It Works: Straight and to the point, this one pulls no punches. If someone touches your child, whether it’s to feel their hair, give them a hug, or tickle them, you have a right to tell that person to back off.
When To Use It: When the boundary violation is egregious or when you just don’t have time for BS. Also good for when your child is too young to speak for themselves.
2. Interrupt The Behavior
What This Looks Like: Say, “We’re teaching our child about healthy boundaries. Could you ask me/them before touching them?”
Why It Works: This acts as a subtle callout, while also offering an explanation for the boundary you’re setting. It may also cause the person to stop and reconsider the next time they want to touch a child without asking.
When To Use It: This is a good tool in situations where you may have to interact with someone again, like a friend or family member. You’re teaching them your values so that they can continue to practice them while interacting with your family, while also providing a learning opportunity for when they interact with other children.
3. Ask Your Child For Permission
What This Looks Like: Turn to your child and ask, “Is it OK if this person touches you?”
Why It Works: This gives your child agency to set their own boundaries and learn to speak up when someone does something they may not like. It also causes the person doing the touching to step back and respect whatever your child’s response to the question is.
When To Use It: When you feel comfortable allowing your child to use their voice, or when you want to encourage them to speak for themselves.
4. Ask Your Child How They Feel
What This Looks Like: Ask your kid, “Do you like it when people touch you without permission?”
Why It Works: On top of giving your child the agency to speak for themselves, this method helps explain to the person who touched them why they should refrain from doing so. It can show them that it isn’t harmless, but actually may make a child feel uncomfortable.
When To Use It: When you want to make the person who touched your kid feel bad.
5. Praise Your Kid For Sharing Their Germs
What This Looks Like: Loudly say to your child, “Johnny, I’m so proud of you for sharing your stomach flu/mono/whooping cough/deadly cold with so-and-so!”
Why It Works: The person will reflexively jump back and/or feel kind of stupid.
When To Use It: When you’re looking for a lighthearted approach.
6. Tell Your Child It’s Time To Leave
What This Looks Like: Take your kid’s hand and say, “OK, Susie, we’re leaving now.” Walk away.
Why It Works: You have physically removed your child from the situation.
When To Use It: When the person who’s touched your kid is a stranger and you’re in a public place like a coffee shop, or when you don’t have the energy to address it directly.
7. Touch The Person Back
What This Looks Like: If, for example, someone leans over and touches Danger’s hair and comments on how soft it is, lean over and touch their hair and comment on the texture of it. This was my go-to when I was pregnant and people would put their hands on my belly without asking — I would simply touch their belly back.
Why It Works: This is a way of reflecting someone’s behavior back onto them so they know what you’re feeling. It can be a very clear way of demonstrating how uncomfortable and intrusive it feels when someone feels entitled to touch you without permission.
When To Use It: When you feel comfortable to do so, when you really want to make your point.
8. Create A Physical Barrier
What This Looks Like: Step between the person and your child.
Why It Works: You have cut off physical access to your child, which stops the behavior.
When To Use It: When you need to act quickly, when words aren’t working.
9. Make Cards To Hand Out
What This Looks Like: Print up cards that you carry around with you that say something to the effect of, “It is rude to touch people without asking, including children. We are trying to teach our child about consent and healthy boundaries, boundaries which you just violated by touching them. The next time you find yourself wanting to touch a child, or anyone, without their explicit permission, DON’T.” Hand it to the offender and walk away.
Why It Works: You very clearly spell out why their behavior isn’t OK, and hopefully stop them from doing it to someone else in the future.
When To Use It: When you’re too nervous to have a direct confrontation.
Your child has a right to decide who touches them and when, and as a parent, you get to help them learn to do that.