- Describe safe, unsafe, and unwanted touch, permission to touch, public versus private, and active supervision.
- Understand modeling of culturally and developmentally appropriate permission to touch.
- Support children and youth through unwanted but necessary touch.
Safe, Unsafe, and Unwanted Touch
Read the definitions and examples for safe, unsafe, and unwanted touch.
Safe Touch: These are touches that keep you from harm, help to keep you well-cared for, or make you feel good about yourself. Examples of safe touch are:
- Helping a child keep their body clean in the bathroom
- A helper taking care of an injury (putting on a Band-Aid, putting ear drops in)
- A doctor or helper making sure a person's body is healthy (such as a dentist cleaning teeth)
- Friendly touches such as high fives, handshakes, fist bumps, a gentle pat on the back
- For some children and families, holding, hugging, and kissing
- Someone keeping you from harm (a grown-up holding a child’s hand when next to a busy street)
Unwanted Touch: These are touches that are generally safe but may not always be wanted. Unwanted touch usually happens when someone does not ask permission or you need help deciding what is best for you.
- A child refuses to give their caregiver a form of affection, such as hug or kiss
- A child refuses to take medication
- Touch that may be a social norm in some cultures or families but not widely practiced by most
Unsafe Touch: These are touches that hurt you or make you feel bad and are never OK.
- Pushing, hitting, biting
- Touching someone else’s private parts, other than when a grown up is making sure they are healthy or clean and has explained why the touch is necessary
- Threatening or using physical violence
- Forcing someone into a contained space or preventing them from moving
Though the lines for safe versus unsafe touch may seem very clear, when touch is wanted or unwanted can be much more difficult to determine. What is considered unwanted touch may change for each individual child depending on the circumstance and the other person involved.
Permission to Touch
Has someone, who intended no harm, ever touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable? Maybe it was a casual acquaintance who unexpectedly hugged you or someone who tapped you on your shoulder to get your attention. While these actions are not meant to make you uncomfortable, everyone has different levels of comfort with touching. When you ask permission to touch someone, you communicate that you are considering what the other person feels and are responsive to their preferences. Permission to touch can prevent all kinds of unwanted touch, including those that are sexual behavior challenges.
Reading and Responding to Cues
First, you should know that children cannot legally consent to sexual behavior, even if they willingly participate in an interaction. Though they cannot legally consent, all children can communicate through cues. A cue is an expression, action, or words that tell you what a person is thinking or feeling. Responding to children’s cues lets them know that their thoughts and feelings matter. For example, crying is a cue that infants use to let caregivers know they need something. As children grow from infants to toddlers and expand the ways in which they communicate, children need to learn to read and respond to others’ cues, including peers. Read the scenarios below and reflect on how the children in the examples used cues to communicate their preferences on touch.
Desi, a friendly toddler, enthusiastically hugs Evan. Evan is a cautious 20-month-old who is just beginning to talk. He doesn’t say anything to Desi, but Evan has a concerned facial expression and stiff posture.
Caregiver response: “Desi, please give Evan space. Evan’s face and body are telling us he does not want a hug,” while bringing Desi’s attention to Evan’s expression.
Olivia is a preschooler who is very interested in exploring pretend play themes around caregiving. She loves to pretend that other children are babies and play doctor. One day while she is the “doctor” and Sammi, another preschooler, is having a check-up, Olivia lifts up Sammi’s shirt and places a toy stethoscope on her chest. Sammi begins to squirm and whine, indicating she doesn’t like it.
Caregiver response: “Olivia, our clothes stay on our bodies. What did you see Sammi do when you lifted her shirt? What do you think that means?”
Zoe, a school-age child, has a new haircut and highlights. Nico, another child in the program, comes up to Zoe from behind and says, “I love your new hair,” and proceeds to put her hands on Zoe’s hair and “play” with it. Zoe quickly jerks her head away and scowls at Nico.
Caregiver response: “Nico, please respect Zoe’s personal space. What do you think it feels like when someone comes from behind and touches you?
All of the above scenarios are examples of what can happen when children do not ask permission to touch or do not respond to others’ cues. Notice how the caregivers in the examples used these opportunities to teach children that touching without permission affects how others feel. Teaching all children to first ask permission to touch helps them learn boundaries and can prevent many sexual behavior challenges. For example, if Olivia (the preschooler) does not learn to ask permission to touch when playing doctor, how will she know that it’s not OK to touch another child’s private parts when in the bathroom?
Culturally and Developmentally Appropriate Modeling
While your program should have clear rules and expectations on touch, children’s family and cultural norms on touch are diverse. For example, in some cultures it is customary to kiss others on the cheek when greeting friends, family, and acquaintances. In other cultures touching another person’s head, even a child’s, is inappropriate. Although you are primarily learning about permission to touch to prevent sexual behavior challenges in children and youth, it is also important that you are aware of your own behaviors. For example, many caregivers may not think twice about affectionately giving a child a gentle pat on the head. But if you did that to a child who comes from a family that considers this disrespectful, what effect might that have?
Some children, such as Desi and Evan (the toddlers in the above example), are not yet developmentally able to ask and give permission. It is particularly important that you read and interpret the cues of children who have emerging expressive communication and those with speech, language, and social delays. Desi’s caregiver will need to model asking permission to touch so that Desi will have the opportunity to develop this skill. Her caregiver can do this each morning when Desi arrives and before she leaves in the afternoon. The caregiver can ask Desi, “Can I give you a hug?” Desi may happily give a big hug each time. Modeling this behavior will support Desi and other children in learning to ask permission to touch.
Read the examples below and notice how the caregivers modeled developmentally appropriate permission to touch.
Vivian, a 6-month-old, is crying in her crib upon waking up.
Caregiver response: “Vivian, I hear you. I can hold you now,” as caregiver picks up Vivian from her crib and provides comfort.
Marcus, a young preschooler, walks out of the bathroom with his pants unfastened.
Caregiver response: “Marcus, can I help you with your pants?”
Bella, a school-age child, unknowingly has a sticker stuck on the back of her shirt.
Caregiver response: “Bella, there is a sticker on the back of your shirt. Would you like me to help you pull it off?”
Public versus Private
Though the meaning of public and private may be difficult for some children to understand, you should teach what these words mean in developmentally appropriate ways. Read the examples to learn ways caregivers can support children in learning about this important concept.
Gia, a toddler, points to her genitals during a diaper change and says, “ba ba.”
Caregiver response: “That’s your private part. We’re making sure your private parts are clean, then we will cover back up with a diaper.”
Now read how staff who work with preschoolers can teach children about public versus private. Notice how this caregiver incorporates this concept into a familiar routine.
Caregiver response: “Friends, it is time for us to use the restroom. Remember that the restroom is a private space where we make sure our private parts, the parts covered by a swimsuit, are healthy and clean. Going to the restroom is something we do by ourselves unless you need help from a grown-up.”
While most school-age children generally understand the terms private and public, they may need help with appropriate conversation in public versus private settings. A school-age staff member has noticed that several children will announce private activities, attempting to be funny. She has heard children yell out statements such as, “I need to take a dump.” Read how this staff member supports school-age children’s understanding of private versus public.
Caregiver response: “Please make sure that we keep private matters, such as going to the restroom, to yourself. If you have a question, please ask a staff member. “
The learning environment is a public space and should not have any areas where staff cannot provide active supervision. Active supervision occurs when “staff position themselves so that they can observe all of the children: watching, counting, and listening at all times” (National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness, 2019).
Sometimes, through children’s activities and ideas, the environment changes in ways that prevents staff from providing active supervision. Read this example which shows how a teacher ensured that she could actively supervise children while still encouraging them to engage in their original idea.
Milo and George are using large, foam blocks to build towers. Their teacher notices that they have begun to build on top of a waist-high bookshelf, making it difficult to see children in the book nook.
Caregiver response: “Friends this is a public space where we play together and everyone sees one another. How can we change your tower so the book nook stays public?”
You might need to increase how closely you provide active supervision for children who exhibit sexual behaviors, even if they are normative. For example, some of the school-age children in an after-school program find it humorous to sneak up behind each other and slap peers’ backsides. Staff can prevent this behavior from happening by providing closer active supervision where the behavior tends to occur, in the gym for example. For this example, the children and youth may need an additional staff member to provide active supervision when in the gym in addition to a reminder cue:
Caregiver response: “Please respect your peers, including their personal space and bodies, when playing in the gym today.”
Active supervision, especially when you routinely engage with children during their activities and conversations, can prevent the spread of advanced sexual knowledge among children in the program. For example, the teaching team uses active supervision to support Enrique:
Enrique, a preschooler, sometimes uses slang terms for private parts when speaking with other children. Notice how the teaching team uses active supervision to support him.
Caregiver response: The teaching team intentionally provides closer supervision for Enrique (physically close to him), especially when he is chatting with peers, to help guide his conversations and support his use of appropriate language.
Children and youth need intentional support to learn and follow rules that place them on a path of healthy sexual development. They also need physical environments that promote rule-following and allow program staff to actively supervise. Prevention is the best approach, and here you will hear experts discuss strategies that prevent sexual behavior challenges.
Asking, Accepting, and Declining Permission
You will need to teach children and youth how to ask, accept, and decline permission to touch. Encourage children to be respectful, but firm. Remember that communication is more than words. It may be helpful for children with emerging language to learn to recognize gestures as well. Review the suggestions below and think about how you can use these ideas when working with children and youth.
Model and teach young children a gesture for “stop.” Extending your arm and hand (palm facing other person) is a universal and often intuitive gesture. You can model this for children when you observe a child initiate unwanted touch. For example, toddler Kori puts her hands on Jack’s face. Based on Jack’s facial expression, caregiver Simon recognizes that this is unwanted touch. Simon models the “stop” gesture to communicate to Kori, explaining that Jack says, “No thank you.”
- Help children learn to read cues by using reflective questions and narration. “What do you think it means when someone pulls away from you?" Or “He has a sad face.”
- Have children practice asking for, accepting, and declining various forms of safe touch (e.g., high fives, holding hands). “Can I have a high five?” “Sure!” “No, thank you.” “Not right now.”
- Teach children that they are “the boss” or “in charge” of their bodies and that they decide (except when a grown-up must help them and has explained why they must help them) when they participate in safe touch and when they don’t.
- Help children understand that you can decline a safe touch and still be that person’s friend.
- Teach phrases and concepts such as, “You’re in my bubble” so children know when they are unintentionally invading personal space or engaging in unwanted touch.
- Use specific, positive feedback when you observe children asking, accepting, and declining permission to touch. “Liam, thank you for asking to give Isabel a hug.”
- Respect children and youth’s decision to decline (optional) safe touch. Avoid begging or teasing children when they decline. If a child refuses to give their parent a kiss at drop-off, begging from an adult might sound like, “Oh, come on, Daddy really wants a kiss. Please give me a kiss before I leave.” The caregiver can support the child and parent in this situation by voicing the child’s intention, “I'm sure he will be excited to see you at pick up. Maybe you could ask to give him a kiss then?”
Complete the Active Supervision activity. You will brainstorm ways you can modify the environment to make sure all children are safe and receive active supervision.
Read about the examples in the Supporting Children through Unwanted but Necessary Touch activity. Think about instances you have encountered when this may have occurred. Use the examples to brainstorm how you will support children in similar situations.
National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness. (2019). Active supervision. Retrieved from https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/active-supervision.pdf
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network & National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth. (2009). Sexual development and behavior in children: Information for parents and caregivers. Retrieved from https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/sexual_development_and_behavior_in_children.pdf
Silovsky, J.F., Swisher, L.M., Widdifield, J. & Turner, V.L. (2013). Children with sexual behavior problems. In D.S. Bromberg & W.T. O’Donohue (Eds.), Handbook of child and adolescent sexuality: Development and forensic psychology (pp. 497-518). Oxford: Academic Press.