Learning to set and hold boundaries is an important life skill. This need is especially visible now, as so many more women and men are speaking up about being sexually harassed and even violated by people in positions of power.

Adults who have trouble setting boundaries — possibly because they never acquired this skill as children —  may be more vulnerable to abuse. Such people may:

  • Feel that he or she lacks the power to say "no" and may never have the opportunity to develop the skill to set and hold boundaries
  • Not even realize there's a choice when asked to do something they don't wish to do
  • Respond to others' needs without considering the cost to themselves
  • Feel powerless to stop abusive behavior, and then ashamed to disclose their own powerlessness

Holding personal boundaries and respecting those of others is a critical component of sexual health and safety, and it's never too early to teach and model healthy assertiveness for our kids. In fact, if you haven't already started, this holiday season could be your perfect opportunity to promote healthy assertiveness in young children and teens to help them keep their bodies and psyches fit and safe.

Parents can teach kids what their rights are and give them the skills and the permission to stand up for themselves as protection against boundary-pushers of all types — peers as well as adults. Teaching by example is most effective, and one of the best examples is allowing a child to decide with whom they will share physical affection by the age of 2 or 3.

Consider teaching school-aged children to respond to a request for a hug or a kiss by offering a warm smile and a handshake if that's what they would prefer. Prepare your child with a response along the lines of, "No thank you, I prefer to shake hands." Role play with them before a big family event; let your child feel his or her own power of saying no and being heard.

"But Grandma says she needs a hug for the holidays!" exclaims your spouse. Maybe she does, but what if the child doesn't want to hug? An adult who says she "needs" a hug magnifies the reasons for a child to have permission to keep boundaries. What the parent says in this moment is crucial because the emotional needs of an adult should never take priority over those of a child.

So don't hesitate to act if an adult needs a reminder. Little ones need the adults who love them to respect and protect their boundaries. It can be as simple as saying, "Sorry Mom, but we're teaching our kids to set boundaries, and we're actually proud that the lesson is taking." Go a step further and remind Mom that you're also teaching your kids to show respect when someone else says "no" to touch and ask your parent to be a good role model. Parents can be warm and polite while supporting their child's request.

It's never been more obvious that people need to learn to set and respect boundaries. Kids learn so much about how the world operates from their parents. A discussion about holiday hugs provides a gentle, teachable moment for all generations of your family. A family that can raise a child who understands the importance of boundaries is something the entire community can be thankful for.

Dr. Rosenzweig is also the author of The Sex-Wise Parent  and The Parent's Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children. For more information, read her blog or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group.