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