Why Consent is Important During the Holidays, Especially for Kids
For many families, the holiday season can be overstimulating. There are unique factors such as increased travel, entertaining guests, and holiday rituals around gifts, food, and culture. On top of that, we pack several generations of people together who have different expectations. While focusing on creating a magical narrative for kids, sometimes adults get dysregulated. Meanwhile, kids’ need for autonomy gets lost in the crossfire.
The challenge of the pandemic adds its own stress. Families and children are experiencing loss, anxiety over safety and health, and other social, physical, and financial stress. It’s even more crucial when we’re feeling this way to take a moment to ponder consent and why it’s important during the holidays. By practicing these skills now, amidst our stress, we make it easier to bring consent into our daily life in the new year.
Mindfulness is the key to helping adults build a culture of consent for kids and teens (you don’t have to be a parent). We begin with the premise that all people, regardless of age, are entitled to autonomy and that consent matters, especially for kids who lack agency and power to make decisions. The purpose of practicing consent is, above all else, to keep kids safe.
Here are some of the barriers you may encounter:
The holidays introduce all kinds of chaos that every person deals with differently. When your child is overwhelmed by these new circumstances and emotions, their ability to consent lessens and their risk of harm increases. In the same manner, when you feel out of control, your ability to advocate for yourself and your child is also jeopardized. There are various obstacles, but luckily there are some things you can do about it!
(Hint: the best Jedi-mind-trick is to check in with your feelings first!)
1. Use Your Reactions as a Road Map to Your Kid’s Needs:
Developing an understanding of what’s going on in you can be the first step to figuring out what the needs of your child are. From there, you can identify the message your child is trying to send (aka their attempt at meeting their own need); especially when they lack the awareness and communication skills necessary to tell you what’s up. Kids’ behavior and your response illustrate their needs. Here are some examples adapted from the theory of Positive Discipline:
2. Teach Kids to Check In with Their Feelings:
Start by asking kids questions. Set the wheels of awareness in motion. Don’t worry about the response. They may not know the answer. The important thing is to get them used to thinking about it.
Taking time to calm down is never a waste. It helps assess situations and lowers the chance that our system will become compromised, reducing our risk of harm.
We’re not saying you have to tap into an imaginary, endless wellspring of patience. It’s OK to lose your cool. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s all about how we repair. Kids often know what they need in order to feel better, so make sure to ask them and do not make assumptions. Reflect whether the solution you jump to is addressing your desires and comfort over those of the child.
3. Practice Co-regulation
Co-regulating happens when two people, such as a parent and child, calm down together. One method is to implement self-imposed “time-outs” and model them. Your kiddo will be watching you close your eyes, take a deep breath (or three), and will want to join you. This is something to rehearse with children ahead of time. They may even help remind you that you can take a time-out yourself!
Give it a fun name you can both use. For kids who have experienced punitive time-outs, calling it “break time,” “humming time,” or something special to them, can empower instead of punish. Encourage them to use it when they look upset or dysregulated and back them up when they set a boundary by saying they need a moment.
Another method is to engage in tandem relaxation. Get face to face with them (sitting or kneeling) and make eye contact. Start taking slow, deep breaths working to slow your heart rate and reduce your own tension. Encourage them to breathe and relax with you. Ask them to help you relax when you’re feeling stressed or upset by breathing with you. (It works with other adults too).
4. Encourage Kids to Say No (and Mean It):
If you haven’t already read about best practices for showing children affection or asking them to hug or greet adults, check out this article by The Girls Scouts of North America. Harken back to your own youth– do you remember an instance of being told to “be polite!” and touch or greet an unfamiliar adult?
We believe consent is a life skill. Encouraging children of all ages to say no when they don’t want something will help them be more comfortable saying no and asserting their boundaries. We recommend modeling appropriate boundaries and saying no yourself, so they can see how to do it. You can reason it out with a child, negotiate with them, and/or remind them about family rules.
Pay special attention to physical interactions. Never force a child into physical contact against their will unless it’s necessary for their safety or survival– in which case, provide them with the reason why you did it after they calm down. Give them a choice and get creative when providing alternatives. Instead of hugging, maybe they would prefer to blow a kiss or give a fist bump.
5. Use Consent Around Holiday Rituals:
Food and Gifts
The expectations and pressure we put on holiday traditions can sometimes erase the pleasure of the experience. Set reasonable expectations before the day-of celebration to provide structure. Help them rehearse what to say if they don’t like or want to eat a particular food. Talk about how to express appropriate gratitude without enforcing shame.
Allowing children to have honest reactions to food and gifts protects their sense of agency. Offer your child a choice, even if it’s between two or three good alternatives. Encourage them to try something new by focusing on the pleasurable aspects.
If a child says they’re not hungry, do not force them to eat. There is often an overabundance of food around the holidays. Trust they are trying to communicate their needs. If they don’t eat now they might be hungry later; if they choose to eat pie for dinner, they may have a stomach ache. You can reinforce that reasonable consequences may be a part of their choice.
What to Wear
It’s OK to be honest about why you want them to wear something specific, such as: for warmth, for ceremony, or taking pictures. The important thing here is not to pull rank. Let them know your word isn’t law. You may have to negotiate or compromise. Would it be OK if they did wear that favorite shirt instead of the dress you chose?
Approach with a rationale, but also try to take your child’s perspective. Let them be part of the decision. Especially for transgender and gender-nonconforming children, being forced to wear clothing that is noncongruent with their identity can cause genuine pain. While it may seem harmless to you, clothes are a part of our autonomy, especially for older children and teens. Treat the issue like there is a real risk of harm.
Also remember to bring a change of clothes if the event is scheduled beyond bedtime so younger kids can be comfy.
As with physical affection, not wanting to go sit on Santa or grandpa’s lap should be normalized. Additionally, asking children to take pictures and to smile can be exhausting, uncomfortable, or distressing. We learn so much from kids who are neurodiverse on this issue.
Authenticity matters. Capturing a moment in time thus includes some shots full of teen angst or cranky kids not smiling. We recommend calling all people to photographs with a warm invitation instead of an order. Encourage smiles with jokes, happy memories, or silliness, instead of policing faces showing authenticity.
Practicing consent skills during the holidays sets up successful future interactions when the stakes are not as high. By following the child’s lead, approaching with mindfulness, using a harm-reduction mindset, and taking time to communicate around expectations and boundaries; we nurture children’s sense of autonomy in the moment and throughout their development.
Remember to practice self-compassion and allow yourself some time to contemplate and develop these new skills together. Pick one idea or skill to start with. Share them with other adults and brainstorm. Or maybe ask the kids which one they would like to start with.
All of us here at the Consent Academy (www.consent.academy) wish you and your family a peaceful and consent-filled holiday.
Want to know more? Join us for an online zoom workshop for more Consent & Kids: Ways to teach and model consent with kids:
By: The Consent Academy: Jess Minckley, Nikki Van Wagner, Sar Surmick - 12/18/20
- Girl Scouts. (2020). Reminder: She Doesn’t Owe Anyone a Hug. Not Even at the Holidays. https://www.girlscouts.org/en/raising-girls/happy-and-healthy/happy/what-is-consent.html
- Mistaken Goals Chart. (n.d.) PositiveDiscipline.com. Retrieved December 13, 2020 from https://www.positivediscipline.com/sites/default/files/mistakengoalchart.pdf
- Nelsen, J. (2006). Positive discipline. Ballantine Books.
- Rudy, L. J. (2019, June 24). 21 Autism-Friendly Christmas Santas, Shops, and Shows: The World Is Getting Autism-Friendlier for the Holidays. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellhealth.com/autism-friendly-christmas-santas-shops-and-shows-4107530
- Sorensen, N., & Oyserman, D. (2012). Collectivism, Effects on Relationships. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/89919/Collectivism_Effects_on_Relationships.pdf?sequence=1
It is never easy to know what a good response looks or sounds like. It’s made more complicated by the bounds of confidentiality and not having consent to discuss details openly in a public forum. Recognizing this letter is likely insufficient, we still wanted to respond and outline what we have done, are doing, and are able to do moving forward.
Some weeks ago the Consent Academy received notification about harm incurred during an intervention we mediated some years ago. We attempted to engage, but did not do so as skillfully as we could have. After several exchanges it became clear to us that we were not helping, and may have been making things worse. In accordance with our procedures, we formed a group to review the issue. This letter is the outcome of that process.
We believe and understand harm was done. There’s no response or explanation that can change what happened. As an organization and as the individuals making up that organization, we regret what happened.
We reviewed the notes and comments left. Through our process we determined that we’re able to meet some, but not all, of the requests made. As an organization there are things outside of our capacity. To address what we can, we offer the following:
We also took the feedback as an opportunity to improve our organization. We want to help make sure this negative experience doesn’t happen again. Along with other feedback, we are making the following changes to our practice:
*** We intend to complete #s 5-9 by October 2020.
We know these changes will not erase the harm experienced. We hope it lets people know that reaching out has and will make a difference. We are committed to taking feedback and making positive change as we are able.
We request everyone reading this respect the confidentiality of all those involved and refrain from asking for specifics or guessing at them. To uphold confidentiality and consent, we are not able to give any identifying details. Beyond that, we firmly believe everyone involved has a right to their privacy and the right to consent, or to withhold consent, to the telling of their story.
We are only posting this in a limited way. We acknowledge our part in what happened and have no wish to cause additional harm or hardship. This letter intends to show the changes we’re making and our process in working through a complicated situation while also living up to our own ethics.
There is certainly more we can do to improve. If there is other feedback or suggestions, please contact us via the website: www.consent.academy/contact.html
The Consent Academy
There are a couple questions we've been asked lately and we wanted to take a little time to do our best to answer these difficult questions. Please note the following is our take and not meant to be directive. Each person needs to come to their own decisions around this complicated topic:
What do you do if someone has violated or broken your consent?
1) Take a deep breath. This is a hard and emotional thing to have happen. It can bring up a lot of different feelings. Common ones are anger, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, and anxiety. It can also trigger old memories or traumas. People often feel confused and uncertain at first. Through the whole process, always remember to breathe.
2) Get support. Avoid thinking you need to go through this alone. Find a friend or someone you trust to talk to about what happened. Seek support from a therapist, counselor, or other professional who can help you process. Engage people to help make day-to-day things easier while you’re working through what happened.
3) Take the time you need. Some people process things quickly. Other people need more time to work through things. There’s no right or wrong answer to how much time you “should” take to process. It’s different for everyone, so take the time you need.
4) Think about what you want or need. Everyone is going to have an opinion on what you “should” do. Use the time to think about what you want, what’s right for you, and what you want your boundaries to be. You have every right to make these decisions for yourself and to request the people around you respect your decisions. If you need help to figure it out, engage your support network.
5) If you decide you want to tell the person who broke your consent, make sure you have other support in place. Understand they are likely to have an emotional reaction, may see the event differently than you, and may not be able to give you the response you need. If you’re telling them, make sure you are doing it for yourself, to help you heal or process, and not out of a need for a specific response.
6) If you decide you want to report what happened, which you have every right to do, contact the venue (if there was one) and ask what their policy is for reporting a consent incident or violation. If they have one, do what you can to follow it. If they don’t have one, ask them to work with someone who does.
7) If you decide you want to post your experience on-line, that is your right too. Remember some people will be supportive and others will be critical. Make a conscious choice to step into the public space and make sure you have additional support to help when things get tough. Get someone to help you review and edit your posts before you put them up.
8) Remember, dealing with a consent incident is a process; sometimes a long and emotional one. Take care of yourself, use your support network, and be gentle with yourself while you’re going through it.
A few suggestions to the internet for when you read about a consent violation or even a potential consent violation:
- DO: Recognize any consent incident or violation is complicated and can be placed on a broad spectrum.
- AVOID: Engaging in black/white, either/or thinking around the topic.
- DO: Offer support to the people involved. Dealing with this, especially when it is made public, is hard.
- AVOID: Stating an opinion when you don’t know all the details or facts.
- DO: Recognize only the person whose consent has been violated gets to determine if and how much that incident impacted them. It is their right to decide how they want to deal with it.
- AVOID: Defining how other people should feel or what their intent was in a given situation.
- DO: Talk about issues of consent on your own feed/wall/blog/etc. These are important things to talk about and to share ideas on.
- AVOID: Engaging in debate about an idea in a place where someone is talking about their personal experience, seeking support, or asking for help.
- DO: Ask yourself before making a public statement whether or not someone will be harmed, or if the risk of harm will be increased. Remember, real people are on the other side of the comments you’re making.
- AVOID: Shaming or threatening people simply because you disagree with them.
- DO: Encourage people to seek support, get help, and better educate themselves about consent.
- AVOID: Criticizing anyone for wanting to learn, grow, or change.
- DO: Recognize if we want people to come forward, either as someone who has had their consent violated or as someone who violated another’s consent, we need to support them in doing so, both emotionally and logistically. We need structures where they can get emotional support, education, and good consultation.
- AVOID: Thinking this process is simple or easy.
- DO: Encourage organizations you work with to develop, use, and improve consent policies and procedures.
- AVOID: Ignoring this critically important issue.
- DO: If your consent has been violated, it is important you come forward and talk about it. Recognize doing so publicly, at this current time, has risks and stigma attached to it. Find a therapist, friend, or confidant who can support you in talking about what happened. If it happened at a party, gathering, or event, find out if that organization has a procedure for reporting it and talk to them, if you feel doing so is the right thing for you.
- DO: If you have violated someone’s consent it is also important you come forward and talk about it. Recognize doing so publicly, at this current time, has risks and stigma attached to it. Find a therapist, friend, or confidant who can support you in talking about what happened. Get help to make an honest apology, receive appropriate education, and figure out how to make amends for the harm caused. It’s never easy to admit you hurt someone, but it is the right thing to do.
Here at the beginning of 2017 we find ourselves on the cusp of change. Whether or not you like the direction things are heading, there has been a significant impact on people. Through last year’s deaths, political upsets, media frenzies, and conversations about what behavior is right or wrong, we’ve had a lot of opinions, arguments, and fear. So what next?
Lots of answers to that question. Mine… practice consent.
This may seem an odd answer, but hear me out. Change creates anxiety. Anxiety stresses the connections and interactions between people. Stressed people tend to be reactive and less likely to pay attention to others. In doing so people are more likely to engage in nonconsensual behavior which creates distance, anger, and hurt.
In this time of change we need the opposite. We need connection, compassion, and healing. Practicing daily consent does all of this. When we respect the boundaries of the people around us we foster connection, mutual respect, and a sense of safety. When people respect our boundaries we are more likely to trust, engage, and share ourselves. By practicing consent in our daily lives we start to create a Consent Culture that can grow and support our communities.
It is hard to know what’s going to happen next in our world. Whatever it is, I know that facing it connected is important; that we are stronger together than we are alone. Building the practice of consent will foster connection both within communities and between communities. If we can listen to and respect one another we will counter anxiety and distance.
The practice of consent is one of the things that grows the more it’s used. I practice with you and you feel better. You practice with someone else and they feel better. And so forth and so on. Each link forges new connections and increases safety. We collectively build a better world.
So if you want to save the world, whatever that means to you, start with the practice of consent.
Join me at www.consent.academy
Sar Surmick – Director of the Consent Academy and Marriage & Family Therapist
Welcome to the Consent Academy. We’re happy you found your way to us.
This blog is a place where our members can post their thoughts and ideas about consent. Because consent is such a big topic we’re likely to have a wide range of posts and concepts. Part of our goal here at the CA is to move the discussion of consent outside being only about sexual consent and to talk about how consent impacts all aspects of our lives.
One of the questions I ask: “How does consent show up in your day to day life?” If your response to that that question is “Huh?” or “What do you mean?” or “How can consent be a part of my everyday life?” welcome. We are happy to have you here.
Any time we ask for something or when someone asks us for something consent comes into play. Are we getting consent from someone before proceeding? Is the other person respecting our answer, yes or no? Think about how many times in your day a request is made. Each time consent enters into the conversation, and whether or not that consent is validated, significantly impacts our perception of the interaction and the people involved.
By expanding how we think about consent and our behavior around it we open the discussion. This blog is here to facilitate that expansion. We hope you will continue reading, questioning, and engaging in this essential conversation.
Sar Surmick – Director of the Consent Academy and Marriage & Family Therapist