Committee for Children Blog

Talking About Tough Topics with Tweens: Part 2 of 2

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Unsafe Versus Unwanted Touch

We’ve also been talking about the difference between unsafe and unwanted touch. When I asked nine-year-old Etta to give me an example of unsafe touch, my witty child walked over to Amos and slugged him. “Correct!” I crowed. Amos remarked drily, “It was unwanted, too.” Etta is familiar with unwanted touch. As a petite person, she sometimes attracts unwanted attention in the form of friends and acquaintances wanting to pick her up or just handle her. She is sensitive to her friends’ sensitivity, so, although she is great about being assertive—“Sophia, please give me some space”—she is also concerned about hurting their feelings, and doesn’t always use her assertiveness skills as well as she is able.

As with Amos, Etta was not crazy about having some of these uncomfortable conversations, although they are not new to either of them. When I asked her what she would do if an older friend wanted to show her weird pictures on their iPhone at recess, first she said they’re only allowed to use iPhones on the bus. “Okay,” I said, “on the bus, then.” She said she had no idea what she would say. “Really?” I asked. “You’ve had great ideas in the past. What about using assertive words or asking a grownup you trust if it’s okay?” She thought that would be okay, but when I asked her to demonstrate how she would say what needed to be said, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Stop! I don’t like it when you keep talking to me about this stuff.”

Touché, Etta.

For Amos, “unwanted” and “unsafe” are hard to differentiate. When he body-checks me (his way of lovingly greeting me at the end of the day) and I ask him not to be quite so rough, he often responds, “I barely touched you! That didn’t hurt.” It’s helpful now to have the language of “unwanted.” Whether it actually hurt or not, if someone doesn’t want to be touched, you don’t touch them. Period. I am acutely aware of the importance of teaching my burgeoning teen this rule. (The “unsafe” part of body-checking is a little trickier to pinpoint since some amount of wrestling and rough-and-tumble play is the norm in our family.) As a boy and an athlete, Amos gets some verbal rough talk from coaches and other players. When I ask if it bothers him, he shrugs. My concern now is how this normalizing of toughness translates to recognizing and addressing unsafe/unwanted touch? Traditionally, as a boy, he’s supposed to bear up against unsafe or unwanted touch; otherwise he’s a wimp [or insert your favorite derogatory term here].

On a related note, Amos also has a hard time apologizing or checking in with people when they are hurt; he’s worried, I think, that this will establish him as culpable.

Talk, Keep Talking, and Keep It Short

Watching the Child Protection Unit videos has given me an excellent boost in talking with my children about all sorts of challenging subjects. It’s also reminded me that we will always have work to do, and it will be different for each child. All the more reason to bring up the subject regularly, and—most importantly for me, anyway—keep it short and to the point so they will actually listen.

Read part 1