With ongoing concerns of child sexual abuse, discomfort often exists when considering acceptable physical boundaries when encountering children in our roles within a church ministry.
By Patricia L. Neal
We frequently ask ourselves questions such as, “What’s an acceptable way to show affection to youth in my care?” or “How should I react if a child runs up for a hug?”
These are important questions, because boundaries promote a lifetime of healthy relationships.
How do we define boundaries?
Until someone “crosses the line,” we tend not to give much thought to personal boundaries. Have you ever been in a situation where you are speaking with an individual and they begin to crowd your personal space, and you realize that you continue to back up until you are in a completely different area in the room? This is an example of your reaction to a violation of the physical boundary of personal space.
Boundaries are defined as the limits that define one person as separate from another person, and physical boundaries are the limits established in our physical interactions — such as physically touching someone. Appropriate boundaries promote and preserve personal integrity, and give each person a clear sense of “self” and a framework for how to function in relation to others and thrive in those situations. Boundaries bring order to our lives and empower each of us to determine how others will interact with us.
How do we incorporate healthy physical boundaries?
Various types of boundaries exist, with physical boundaries being an important type to use when interacting with youth. To help incorporate healthy boundaries in our relationships with children, the “PAN” acronym is a great way to measure if our behavior is appropriate and transparent. PAN is outlined as behavior that is:
• Non-Sexual in nature
By paying attention to our own physical behavior, as well as that of other adults, we will expand the boundaries of our safe environment and serve as role models for others.
What are additional best practices to foster and maintain healthy physical boundaries?
In understanding appropriate touch, it is best to have guidelines for what is acceptable within any situation. A responsible approach is to establish standards or criteria for physical contact that allows an adult to assess any situation and act appropriately — perhaps through a code of conduct at your location, an overarching policy, and even safe environment training.
The following basic questions can help us determine “best practices” in any situation:
• Could the contact condition the child to accept behavior that is more intimate than they might otherwise accept?
• Could the contact condition the community to accept behavior between children, young people and ministers that the community might otherwise find uncomfortable or too familiar?
• Does the contact display appropriate forms of communication?
Understanding appropriate contact will help adults find ways to nurture the children and young people in their care without compromising anyone. Some general examples of appropriate physical contact include:
• Kneeling / bending down for loose hugs with younger children; side hugs for older children
• Pats on the head for small children; high-fives and pats on the shoulder or upper back for older children
• Holding hands while walking with small children
• Shaking hands as a greeting.
Teaching boundary safety is only one part of an overall best practice solution for protecting children from child sexual abuse and creating healthy relationships. The more time we devote to understanding boundaries, the more capable we are in responding appropriately to unhealthy situations.
It is imperative to have the tools to create a safer environment, and understanding appropriate physical boundaries is an important part of the overall solution.
Patricia L. Neal is national director of the VIRTUS Programs, NCS Risk Services, LLC, in Tulsa, OK www.virtus.org . The VIRTUS Programs are highly recognized in providing educational materials and training for the prevention of child sexual abuse and abuse against vulnerable adults.