Teaching Children to Respect Personal Boundaries by Asserting Our Own

In this episode: A mom writes that her toddler weaned at 3 years old, but six months later he remains “obsessed with my breasts.” He pokes and squeezes and smushes his face into them. She has tried to give him the message that this is not okay while also trying to be understanding, but he’s getting rougher, and she’s had enough. “This is not fun.”

Transcript of “Teaching Children to Respect Personal Boundaries by Asserting Our Own”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a note from the parent of a three-and-a-half-year-old boy who is no longer breastfeeding but still very attached to his mother’s breasts, and this parent is having difficulty preventing her son from grabbing her and poking her, which makes her uncomfortable.

Okay, here’s the email I received:

“Hello, Janet. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old toddler boy. He’s spirited, extroverted and delightful. He’s also obsessed with my breasts. I nursed him until just shy of three. It was a long, slow weaning process. He nursed to sleep and for comfort. We weaned at last without too much trauma, however he’s still clingy and obsessed with my breasts. He loves to snuggle and smush his face into them. Lately, he’s gotten a bit rougher, wrapping his arms around one and trying to squeeze it. He also likes to poke them and laugh, and smash them together with both hands. It’s not fun.

My message all along has been that these are private areas and it’s not okay to do that, while also trying to be understanding and telling him that I will always snuggle him. I don’t want him to feel like I’ve denied him affection ever, but I do want him to stop manhandling me. Oh, and we have tried snugly substitutes like teddy bears, toy babies, but they’re all discarded. Any advice would be so appreciated. Thank you.”

This is a fairly common issue that I hear about, and the advice that I have around this also applies to any kind of personal boundary that we need to set with our children. It could be about the way they’re touching us, climbing on us, poking us, touching our faces. What children need in these situations is clarity, and for various reasons, it can be hard for us to be clear and assert ourselves, to stick up for ourselves, right away, to say “No, uh-uh, no chance, not letting you do that,” and I find this really interesting. What’s going on that is making it difficult for us to prevent our child from physically bothering us?

But first, I want to go to our child’s point of view and what our child needs. Again, clarity. Clarity and a parent who’s confident and convicted in what’s okay, the rules. So in this case, this boy breastfed for an extended time, until he was almost three, and this mother says that he nursed to sleep and for comfort, so he did have the feeling that he needed to do that, and then this mother decided to wean, and she said it was a long, slow weaning. I don’t know what her reasons were for having this be a long, slow process. But as the child, I sense that my parent is uncomfortable. I sense when my parent doesn’t want me to be touching them a certain way, and it can be confusing if the feelings that I’m sensing in my parent don’t match their behavior with me.

In other words, say I’m the child, I feel you don’t like this but you’re not stopping me, or you’re kind of half-stopping me, or you’re trying to talk me out of it instead of stopping me, so I’m kind of stuck in this place of being this person that is annoying to you, and yet you’re not doing anything about it. You’re expecting me to stop.

It’s uncomfortable for a child to be in that position, and it can actually create what … the word this mother uses, which is obsessed, and clinginess, because that is a child getting stuck in the web of our tentativeness and mixed feelings that we have, this mismatch between what they sense from us and what we’re asserting. That’s what makes a child obsessed. It’s just a question that they’re never getting a clear answer to, and they might go further and further to try to get that answer.

Like, maybe this mother wasn’t that sure about the weaning, but then finally she did get to the point where she said, “No, we’re not going to do that,” and I don’t know how long she wanted to do that before she actually asserted her boundary, but regardless, now she says he’s getting even rougher. So he’s asking, Okay, I feel you weren’t really comfortable with me snuggling and smushing my face, but you didn’t stop me, so how about this? 

And he might escalate, which it sounds like he’s doing, to poking and laughing and smashing, and it’s almost like he’s waving these flags, Hey, hello. Are you going to stop me? What does it take for you to be clear with me?

The laughing that she says… it’s not deep joy because children don’t feel that joyful laughter when they’re making their parent uncomfortable. It’s more of an uneasy laughter. It doesn’t feel good inside that child to be that person that’s got all this power.

This mother says, “My message all along has been that these are private areas and it’s not okay to do that, while also trying to be understanding, telling him I will always snuggle him.” I’m not sure what she’s trying to be understanding of, except that he wants to grab her and do those things, but I think that the second part of that sentence, “telling him I will always snuggle him…” That’s the part of her that’s not sure that she has a right to say “Stop, no.” I would, right away, stop his hand before it gets anywhere near her breast, to make sure that he’s going to touch you where you want to be touched, in a manner that you want to be touched, and not allow him to go any further than that by physically stopping him.

He can’t be the one to stop himself.  He’s clearly asking for a message, but the message that she wants to give is not the one she’s giving. So, yes, that’s the message we want him to get, these are private areas and it’s not okay to do that, but that message has to be shown to a child, not explained in words. Explaining in words, along with showing our child is helpful, so we’re not just saying, “No, no, no.” We’re physically stopping our child first. “You want to do this. It’s not okay with me.” That’s all, and that can be something as benign as, for me personally, I don’t like my face being touched unless it’s super gentle. I don’t like my face being patted, so I would stop my child from doing that. Not angrily, but just sticking up for myself. “Uh-uh, no. Yeah, you want to pat. I don’t like that. I’m going to stop you.”

It’s simple if we believe in our right to have boundaries, to be as comfortable as possible with this other person that we’re developing a relationship with, a very important relationship, and also, that our child is capable of processing any feelings of disappointment, or loss of breastfeeding, or whatever feeling a child has about not getting to do what they seem to want to do in that moment. That’s okay, for him to say, “But, no, I want to do this,” or to even feel sad about it. That’s more loving than allowing a child to get stuck and obsessed and feel the confusing mixed message in our tentativeness.

In one of my posts I use the analogy of when we’re dating and there’s someone that we don’t want to date anymore, or maybe we never did want to date, but we’re not comfortable being clear about that, so we might say, “Oh, I’m not free that day,” or, “I have do this,” or, “I can’t do it right now,” or, “I’m still seeing someone else,” all of these things that go around just being clear, and how unkind that is to that person, because they get hooked in. They are, in a sense, falsely encouraged by us making excuses or not putting our foot down and saying no.

Before I had my oldest daughter and had to learn how to have boundaries and to confront, I was a very non-confrontational person, and I would do anything to not have to face those moments, face this person having their feelings hurt, being disappointed, maybe being angry with me, not liking me anymore, because everybody’s got to like me or I’m not okay, because I’m not secure enough in myself.

All those feelings will come up for us when we have children, and children offer us this incredible opportunity to heal them and to be honest, to be direct, and confront. And to see again and again that, yes, there is a reaction that’s uncomfortable for us to witness and to have caused. But what we did was allow for that child to have an emotion that is often more about a theme than about that specific issue, the theme of, oh, I don’t control everything in this world, or other changes are going on in my life that are difficult, releasing that.

We help to create that tipping point for our child to share feelings, and then our child expresses those feelings, and we see a calmer person. We see a child who feels freer, who’s not obsessed, because they got what they needed.

I’ve started to see this as keeping a child in chains because we’re afraid to be clear and honest and to stand up for ourselves, when that’s exactly what a child needs for us to model. Not just in terms of their relationship and their understanding of other people’s boundaries, but in their ability to assert their own. It’s a win-win-win when we’re brave, when we’re that magic word, “Clear.”

So, just going to some of the specifics that this parent mentions… “He loves to snuggle and smush his face.” So when he’s snuggling, keep a hand there, in front of your breast area, so that he doesn’t push into it with the full weight of his head, because he’s going to try everything, not because he’s a naughty guy or a bad person, but because he’s desperate for the clarity. So have your hand there when he’s snuggling, so that he doesn’t cross those lines with you.

She says, “Lately he’s gotten a bit rougher, wrapping his arms around one…” So don’t even let him go there. Pull that arm away or stop it if you can see it coming. Notice, “I see you’re going for that. Uh-uh, buddy. I’m not going to let you do that. I’m right here for you to snuggle, but I don’t want the grabby.”

You’re not just saying the words, you’re firmly blocking that from happening. Not overdoing it, but with a feeling of love for him, and again, understanding that he deserves and needs and wants to know that you have boundaries, and that you’re going to prevent him from annoying you, because he can’t be the one to do that.

So he may get one poke in before you’ve seen that coming, but you take that hand and you hold it back. “You want to poke. I see, there’s those pokey fingers. Uh-uh. It’s not happening.”

The more you can feel so comfortable that you don’t even have to raise your voice, you don’t have to be too serious about it, the more comfortable and clear it will be for him, because that shows: I feel like I’m doing something good here, and I don’t feel like you’re doing anything wrong. I just don’t want it, so I’m going to stop it. I’m not judging you, and I’m not feeling victimized at all. I can handle this. I can protect my body.

So don’t let him poke, don’t let him smash. Don’t let his hands near you unless they are going to your shoulders, going around your waist, going to a place that you want them to go. He does not need to grab your chest. He really doesn’t.

And that’s another important point. Sometimes the breastfeeding is such a powerful tool that parents have that they give it too much power. They forget that, Hey, looking in my child’s eyes, being present with him, or having him sit with me and snuggle me in a way that’s comfortable for me, is just as loving, if not a whole lot more loving, than having him breastfeed.

There’s nothing special or magically connecting for a three-year-old that can’t be replaced by two whole people in a relationship together, loving that snuggle that’s a real snuggle, and not allowing that one that isn’t. That’s love. That’s giving him real intimacy that’s clear and wholehearted on our end, not with mixed feelings. That’s the real deal.

This parent says, “I don’t want him to feel I’ve denied him affection, ever.” Right. Affection is not about breastfeeding. I know that’s going to be a controversial thing to say in some circles. Affection is definitely not about being grabbed or touched in any way that the parent doesn’t want to be. That’s not affection. Affection is making eye contact, seeing that guy that’s … his hands are all over the place, and you love him, and you’re going to stop him, and maybe let him yell at you about that, and then hold him a way that you love and are entirely comfortable in, so he will definitely not feel like you’ve denied him affection. You’ve given it to him in the way that feels affectionate on your end. It’s not affection if it’s just one person trying to get it and the other person doesn’t feel it back.

Maybe this is about reframing what a child needs, reframing affection, reframing love, seeing our child as a whole person, able to participate in a relationship with us. We can’t be a cardboard cutout. To be able to respect him as a whole person, we have to respect ourselves.

She says, “We tried the snugly substitutes.” Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me that those don’t work because that’s not what it’s about for him. It’s not about that he needs to grab something or needs to smush something. It’s really about his relationship with you, that he’s trying to figure out where the lines are. He’s asking this question. He deserves an answer, and this mother’s fully capable of giving it to him.

I really hope that helps.

Both my books are available, as always, on audio at audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting . You can get both audio books for free with a 30-day trial membership by using the link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in e-book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com. Oh, and don’t forget to follow me on Instagram: @janetlansbury. (My daughter said to say that.)

Thank you for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Loved this podcast, as always! Would there ever come a point when you would walk away from your child, if they were kicking you or touching you in a way you don’t like? Even if you keep stopping them, if the seem kind of out of control, would it be appropriate to calmly leave the room in order to not allow them to touch you? Especially for a bigger or older child?

    1. Thank you, Sierra! Yes, I could see that happening that we might need to move away, although it’s helpful to give children the message that we aren’t intimidated by their behavior.

  2. Tracey Snopovs says:

    This was a really intuitive and thought provoking reply. I wasnt going to read it because my children are far beyond breastfeeding age but what great words for developing ideas about consent and provoking to me about how I deal with conflict and clarity.

  3. Hi, I have a similar issue with my 2.5 year old constantly grabbing my stomach (under my shirt)… I feel like I have done all of the above for months now, and he still is not stopping. He’s not angry or even laughing, he just will not stop trying to put his hands up my shirt and grab my stomach every second of every day. So what can I do now?

    1. Hi Nina – are you stopping him from coming close to you that way? I’m not understanding how you are not able to put your hands in the way to prevent him even touching you on the stomach, etc. If he’s trying this while on your lap, do not let him on your lap.

    2. Hi Nina – are you stopping him from coming close to you that way? I’m not understanding how you are not able to put your hands in the way to prevent him even touching you on the stomach, etc. If he’s trying this while on your lap, do not let him on your lap. Don’t let yourself be a victim. It’s not good for either of you.

  4. Hi – thank you, as always this post hit home. My 2 yo has annoying habit of touching my face or arm and I have definitely been sending mixed signals. Part of my problem and why I let him, because when he gets irritated with me stopping him, he turns around a picks a cut he has. He has actually turned a small cut into a massive scar on his cheek, or a hangnail on his finger into an infection and I don’t know how to stop him from annoying me but also stop him from hurting himself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations