“Back Off!” Empowering Young People to Claim Their Personal Space

Most of the stuff I write about is focused on peace, love, and compassion, but there’s a point where the best defense really is a good offense. Several weeks ago my daughter was at the library and a bigger kid ran over to her and pushed her down. His mother apologized profusely, Julia was dazed and confused, and I was left wondering, “How could I have prevented this?”

My daughter is often quiet and reserved, especially when she’s in a large group or if she’s feeling overwhelmed. And the library is usually teeming with both kids and adults when we go there for story time. So I thought about how I could empower her to stand up for herself in the face of a larger child intent on pushing, hitting, or biting her.

And then I remembered what we do when our dogs get into her face and she doesn’t like it. We say, “Back off Zoe!” or “Back off Jasper!” We had recently expanded to include our four chickens in this practice because Julia was getting scared of their pecking. So I taught her to move forward, put her hand out, and say “Back off chickens!” And it works! The animals really respond to her.

So I decided we would use this same phrasing with people who are moving toward us aggressively. When we feel afraid, we put out our hand and say “Back off!” Sure enough, after a couple of weeks of practice with the animals, my daughter was at the library with her Grammy when a larger child came toward her quickly with a puppet aimed at her face. Julia immediately put her hand out and forcefully said “Back off!” to the boy with the puppet. My mother-in-law said that all the adults were left with their mouths hanging open and the boy was just as surprised as everyone else was. He did back off and went to play elsewhere.

When I heard the story my heart swelled and I felt so proud. I am so happy to know that my daughter can protect herself from harm even though she’s not yet two years old. Although I hope she rarely has to use this skill, I think it’s an essential one for all children. To be empowered to protect oneself from harm could mean the difference between being bullied or victimized and not. Learning to powerfully say things like “Stop! No! Stay back! Don’t touch my body!” can alert others to a potential threat and often will cause predators to move on, rather than be noticed.

So how do you talk to your kids about personal space and protecting themselves from danger? Do they know what to say and do when they feel afraid? I would love to hear your story so please leave a comment below.
And have a wonderful day. Warm hugs, Shelly

12 comments
Avignon
Avignon

I've tried to teach my child this as she has a HUGE personal space and is continually getting offended or frightened away by other children coming into it. Like you're daughter, she's reserved, likes her own space, and gets overwhelmed by large groups of other children. In fact, she's often scared off by one other child playing on a climbing frame or other group-type toy/equipment. She does seem to be on the receiving end of pushes a lot, but maybe I just think that because I'm her Mum. She get extremely upset by pushing.

The trouble is, it's hard to teach my (only just) two year old how to do this. We don't have any pets or siblings to model it on, and it would come across very harsh to other parents to see an adult do this to another child when we're out. She also doesn't have many words. She wouldn't know how to say "back off!" or even "stop!" though she'd know what they mean. She doesn't even say "no"(though she's very adept at saying it without words!) We've tried telling her, if someone comes to close, say "Stop!" If someone's going to push you, say "stop!" She tries to imitate back to us, putting her hand up and making a very emphatic "Ah!" noise (so cute) but I don't think she gets the context.

Not sure if there is an answer to this really, just wondering if anyone has any ideas ... I look forward to the day she can empower herself in this way.

electrorainbow
electrorainbow

See, this one is hard for me to read as, up until recently, my son would be the one vbeing told to 'back off!'. He's had an issue recognising the importance and sacredness of others' personal space for as long as I can remember (he's eight now). Amazingly, I've been using descriptive praise for a while now and his behaviour has completely turned around, with just a little adjustment to my attitude and how I speak to him, he"s a totally new boy. The point I'd I've to make its that Scott's 'excuse' for not retreating out of someone's space was that THEY hadn't told him to (on these occasions I'd have to do it. And I doesn't have the same impact coming from mum) or they were smiling when they said it, or that it didn't sound to him like they ment it. I believe a few more sharp "back off!"s would have been really helpful in making clear to him that people are serious!

Tmuffindotcom
Tmuffindotcom

We do the same thing with the dog! We also use the word "my/your body" a lot so that the idea of pushing, poking, or grabbing in someone else's personal space is more tangible. We'll say things like, "Hands to yourself! That's your brother's body" when our 3-year-old is grabbing or pushing our 1.5-year-old. The other day, I tried to snuggle up to my 3-year-old on the couch, and he said, "Hands to yourself, mom! That's my body."

ConnieLujan
ConnieLujan

@Shelly--Connie.  I like your talk about giving your 22mos old words to protect her space. It is a good lesson to help her begin to be aware of space--hers and others--to be aware of her "self". How simple is the lesson. I'm thinking of many who have lost their "self" and have to work so hard later in life to recapture their "self", their "life." 

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

Hi  @Avignon, It sounds like you're doing all the right things to help your daughter learn this crucial skill. It may take some time for her to produce the word "stop!" but even just putting her hand up and making any sound at all is a great first step. 

I'd recommend turning this into a game you can play where you step into her personal space and she tells you when to stop or back up. As soon as she sees the impact of her actions, she'll begin to see this as a useful tool in social situations. You can take turns too, so that you're modelling what you ultimately want. Sending you warm hugs, Shelly

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

Wow @electrorainbow, thank you SO MUCH for sharing this. It hadn't even occurred to me what a benefit it can be to the child being told to "back off" but using this clear language can help children understand exactly what's happening and what they need to do to re-establish connection. I like your point about focusing on child to child communication, rather than stepping in and taking over. I do think it's more powerful to support young people in establishing their own boundaries or in the case of your son, supporting children in respecting others' boundaries instead of jumping in and separating children ourselves. Certainly if safety is a concern, we'd want to jump in and separate children quickly, but most of the time, we can coach children through the situation, giving them the opportunity to practice setting and respecting boundaries. Thanks so much for reaching out and sharing your story! Big hugs, Shelly

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

 @Tmuffindotcom I love it! It might not always be what we want to hear, but isn't it reassuring to know that our children can defend their personal space from unwanted advances? I have definitely heard my daughter say "Back off Mommy!" to which I reply, "You've got it! I'll be over here when you're ready for a hug or a snuggle." Thanks for sharing your story! Hugs to you.

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

 @ConnieLujan Yes, I wish I had learned to protect my space when I was a child! Thanks for your comment Connie!

Avignon
Avignon

@AwakeShelly @Avignon 

Hi Shelly

Thanks for your reply. The game is a great idea, we will try this. Do you think children start coping with other children better when they start nursery? My daughter will be starting a few mornings a week in 6 months or so. I was also very shy as a child, and my mother says it didn't help with me, it seemed to make it worse (they took me back out), but I'm holding some hope it will help my little one. She currently has no daycare, and is with me pretty much 100% as we have no relations nearby and most of my mum-friends work.

Just discovered your website and love it!

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

@Avignon You're so welcome! I hear you about the pressuring. I've done the exact same thing and as SOON as I give up and lay off, my daughter accomplishes whatever it was on her own terms. If only I could remember not to pressure her in the first place! :) Have a fantastic day, Shelly

Avignon
Avignon

@AwakeShelly @Avignon Many thanks! I think she'll always be reserved which is just fine with me, I just worry she'll be victimised at school a bit as I was. I suppose it's impossible to protect them from everything though! Hopefully nursery will help prepare her for school. And I agree, I think play-dates are they way forward - only one or two other children for her to worry about.

It's funny the pressure thing - I've learnt the hard way often they only start doing something once you stop pressuring! Duly noted.

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

@Avignon, I do think school helps but make sure you choose a school with a low ratio of child to adult so that she can get the most attention and so that the class isn't huge and overwhelming for her. Also, give her a good 6 weeks or so to adjust when she does start. It takes a while for kids to settle in to a new environment. If I were you I'd make an effort to have play dates with other kids over the next 6 months so that she can begin to build some more social skills before starting nursery school.

You might be able to find a moms group or playgroup online which could be a good place to start. Just be sure not to pressure your daughter to be more engaged than she wants to be, it's completely OK for her to observe and take it slow. You just want to put her in an environment where she can develop these skills and you can start talking to her about what you're noticing.

Good luck! And I'm super glad you found me :) Welcome!

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