Teaching Kids About Personal Space

Toddlers and preschoolers are driven to learn everything about their world, and they are particularly intrigued by the people in it: peers, family members, kids, grown-ups, and most of all their parents. A key aspect of their socialization is learning about personal boundaries, understanding how to assert theirs and respect those of others. They need our help with that. In her response to a parent’s question about her 2.5 year old hitting children who invade his space, Janet explains how we teach these invaluable lessons and why they matter.

Transcript of “Teaching Kids About Personal Space”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m responding to a Facebook message I received. It’s a question about personal space. Certain children really need personal space and it makes them uncomfortable when another child enters that space. So how can we help them learn to manage this and to consider and respect the personal space of others? Hopefully I’ll be answering those questions and more. I’m also going to talk about hitting and other behaviors, and when adults are sort of invading a child’s personal space, causing them to be uncomfortable. I’ll be covering all of that too.

Okay, here’s the question I received:

Hi, Janet-

I really love your content. Thank you for your insight. I have a situation I was really unsure how to parent. If a two-and-a-half-year-old likes their personal space and a child was coming into their personal space, on top of them, etc., the two-and-a-half-year-old pushed the other child away. Do I let this happen? Or do I encourage the child to say, “Please move away from me,” etc.? My only concern is if they use verbal communication, it won’t be effective, as most of the kids don’t listen at all and just keep getting in the child’s space. I feel bad correcting this behavior as he’s allowed to have his personal space. Would so appreciate any help.

And she continues:

I guess the other child’s parent needs to step in and enforce boundaries with their child to stop them going into the other child’s space, but the parent wasn’t there. In this scenario I should have probably parented the other child and explained that the other child needs space.

I wasn’t sure reading this message if this was coming from a parent or a professional caregiver of some kind. So I just want to say, I’m going to be responding to this as if this is a parent.

I appreciate this parent’s conscientiousness, trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do. And in this case, and every case when there’s something going on between children, I would help both children as best I can. I don’t really consider that parenting another child, but being a helpful adult in the situation, who actually has an opportunity to teach positive lessons that both children can benefit from.

Children, particularly in these early years as toddlers, we can’t expect them to be able to assert their own boundaries. They need our help with that. And in a case like what this parent shares, we’ll ideally be teaching both children. In the way that children learn best, which is when we’re calm, confident, with our modeling, whenever that’s appropriate, and not casting blame or shaming or going into urgent rescue mode or otherwise making some big, pointed deal out of it. We don’t want to overdo and add emotion or extra focus to these behaviors. And that means if we aren’t close enough to help calmly, it’s best to wait to help until that point when we can.

So what I’m going to suggest, and I’ll definitely give examples, is how to block the behavior if we are there in time, and then reflect in a manner that helps both children to learn something for the next time. Not necessarily be able to do it the next time, because it takes repetition with young children. So I would be prepared that they’re not going to learn it perfectly every time, but I would still want to teach the lesson. I would do something similar to what this parent suggests. She says, “Should I encourage the child to say, ‘Please move away from me.’?” I would encourage that. It might not be possible to do right in that moment because these situations are happening quickly. So it would be something we could reflect after the fact or later.

Either way, we want to keep it light, A here’s a little tip for you type of attitude, not a heavy hand. Because the basis for children to learn social behaviors, especially something as challenging as asserting their boundaries with another person, is self-confidence. It takes a lot of social confidence for children to assert boundaries. And some children are slower to learn this than others. More sensitive children can take a lot longer. When we come on too strongly, children can get the message that they should be able to do this. And what that can do is diminish their trust in themselves. Trust in themselves is what confidence is. That’s a synonym for self-confidence: trust in ourselves. Or if the child’s on the quote “aggressor” side of this, then our strong lesson around their impulsive, typical, awkward behavior— which these are, imagine all the awkwardness we feel when we’re just learning something, and socializing is a complicated thing to learn. So giving a strong, forceful lesson then will also diminish that confidence.

Now, how do we get there early so that we might be able to block this invasion of space, or at least stop the hitting in response? The key is to practice observing. Especially when our children are engaging with other children, it helps us to practice observing all the children. And that informs us of the behaviors and the self-regulation level of all the children. Our own child will get to them very well, right, if we practice observing. So maybe we know, or we soon learn, that, Oh, my child defends their space with a hit or a kick or a push, so I want to be ready for that. I want to go into situations not anticipating that in an anxious manner, but expecting that it could happen and being prepared. So, calm anticipation. And then when we’re observing all the children, it’s usually not that hard to read their energy. And whether the child is mine or another parent’s, I’m going to try to be there to help my child in the situation. That’s my job. So I hang out a little closer to where the children are, in this cool, relaxed fashion. What I’ve called a “buddy guard.” I want that calmness to just emanate from me, because that will help all the children stay more regulated in the situation. It helps them to have better behavior.

And now let’s say I’ve noticed a child whose energy is a little bit unrestrained, it’s a little out there. And here they are approaching my child. I’m still calm, but I’m ready. And as they’re coming close, I put my hand in the way. My hand is there, I say something like, “Oops, that might be too close for Sammy. I’m going to stop you. Did you want to say hi?” And then that’s it, I just wait with my hand there. And if they’re still standing there, both of them taking it all in, I might add, “Sammy, you can let him know that’s too close, while putting your hand up.” And then I demonstrate that —you can’t see me right now, but I’m doing it— with my fingers pointing upward in a “stop” hand signal.

From there, a whole assortment of things can happen. Sammy might relax and start engaging with the child, they might go their separate ways, who knows? But I know that I’ve done my job and I’ve taught a really good lesson there. And certainly the other parent won’t be upset with the way I’ve handled that, even though pleasing everybody can’t be my priority. My priority is my child. And next in my list of priorities is that other child because, well, that’s me, maybe. I like kids and this is typical behavior. It can be hard to be them and be learning, and I want to help them as best I can.

If I get there too late and the space invasion already happened, I can still block my child from hitting by first putting my hand in between, doing that right away, and then while it’s there, “Oops, I can’t let you hit. Was she coming too close?” I’m waiting a bit. I’m still blocking. And then maybe I offer a gentle lesson. “You can let her know that’s too close like this,” putting my hand up with that “stop” signal.

Now what if the hit gets away from us too? We’re too late to come in without running. And I really don’t recommend running unless there’s a big emergency. Why? Because running or a sense of urgency from an adult charges up the situation. It unsettles everybody. So I would only do that if someone was really in danger. So there we are, we’ve missed that invasion and the hit, but we’re still there to block anything else that might happen. We’re ready. And maybe we put our hand out preemptively, because our child might try to lash out again or that other child might try to get in their space again or lash back at them. But it already happened. We can still say, “Ah, I can’t let you hit. Did she come in too close for you?” And then to the other child, “Are you okay? Sorry I wasn’t there to stop that hit. He doesn’t like when kids come too close.”

Then just waiting for how the children choose to handle this from there. We’re there to help and protect, but not to try to fix and make it all work out for the children, because that part is really important learning for them. And sometimes they won’t, they’ll drop it and they’ll both turn away and that’ll be that. But you never know. Other things can happen, too, that might really surprise us. The children finding a way to join together because they feel safe and nobody feels judged or embarrassed or like we’re against them. We’re believing in them.

And by the way, when we say those things like, “I can’t let you hit” and “Did she come in too close for you?”, it may feel more comfortable and work better to switch it up. Especially if we see that that other child does seem hurt, then I would definitely attend to them first: “Ooh, are you okay? Sorry I wasn’t there to stop that hit.” And maybe I wouldn’t even say the part about “he doesn’t like when kids come too close,” because that’s kind of trying to explain away something that this child is still experiencing and feeling, that he got hurt a little or surprised. And in that case, I might just stay checking on that other child and not even attend to my child until later, in terms of saying, “I can’t let you hit,” or “Did she come in too close for you?” We have to kind of feel out the situation. And ideally we’ll get comfortable enough in our role that we’ll be able to adjust and be flexible to what feels right in the moment.

Now, what if this happens with an adult? An adult invades our child’s space or our child is kind of invading an adult’s space. I would do the same thing, and know that we’re teaching both of them when we gently but confidently handle this. So let’s say the adult is coming up to hug our child and we know this is not going to be welcomed by our child. Or we just don’t think the person should be doing that anyway. Then we can gently put our hand on the person’s shoulder or put our hand in front of our child and say, “Oh, did you want a hug? Let’s see if he wants that.” “You feeling like a hug?”, to our child. And if we get something other than a very welcoming response, then we can say, “Oh, I guess he’s not ready yet. Maybe later,” or, “You know, he’s just not comfortable with that right now, but thanks for the gesture.” So we can be polite, we can be unshaming, and teach these lessons. And what we’ve taught the adult there is, This is a person with a point of view over here. Because sometimes when people have that tendency, they’re not quite seeing that this is a whole person yet, deserving of respect. So they just want to do what they want to do because the child’s so cute and cuddly-looking and they just want to do that. That can sometimes be it. So now we’ve had an opportunity to teach that.

And if that gets away from us and we’re not there in time to stop that, then I would make eye contact with my child. I would come close and acknowledge right there. “Oh, it looks like you weren’t quite ready for that hug.” And hopefully the adult will get the hint. And if not, I mean, depending on our relationship with this person, I would really focus on reflecting with my child afterwards: “I saw the way that you looked when grandma came in so close and hugged you like that, so quickly. And you weren’t ready for that, it seemed like you didn’t want that. I noticed. Is that true?” See what they say. And then, “I know, that’s a hard one. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help. And you can try putting your hand out and saying, ‘No thanks, not now.’ But I know that’s so hard to do and that’s why I’m always going to try to be there to help support you.”

And if this is going the other way around, that my child is going over to a stranger and climbing up on them or touching them, even if that person welcomes it, I am not comfortable with that. Maybe some people are, but I would see that as my child hasn’t quite learned to respect someone’s personal space and boundaries. So I would, even if the adult is excited and happy the child is doing this, I would say, “You know, we don’t know them quite that well yet, and I’m going to help you say hi another way.” And maybe I’d even pick my child up, gently move them. Again, no scolding, no shaming, just finding an organic way to teach this boundary. And then let’s say they’re bothering grandma or a friend of ours or their uncle or somebody that we know, I would stop them, even if that adult was too uncomfortable to say anything, which they often are in those situations, I would stop my child: “Ah, you really want to climb on grandma, but I don’t think she wants that. That’s not comfortable.” And while I’m saying these things, I’m always taking the action first— blocking. Gently but confidently blocking.

Now why do I not believe in really making a very big lesson out of this, making a big deal out of it in the moment? “That’s not okay. You know that’s not okay. You shouldn’t do that.” Well, obviously if we do that with an adult, they’re going to feel hurt and maybe angry and defensive and that’s just unnecessary and not as effective for teaching as when we have the attitude of trying to be a little more accepting of everyone’s point of view and where they are in their journey, child or adult. With children, as I mentioned earlier, it’s really about not stripping away that one important social tool that they need, which is self-confidence. It’s a learning tool for everything actually, but especially for socializing because that is such a challenging area of learning for children and sometimes for us as adults as well.

And another reason not to make a big to-do out of these things or to keep reminding kids to always tell people when they need their space is that children might impulsively tend to get a little more stuck testing this out with us, or maybe even kind of using it against us, unconsciously. Like demanding, “I need space!” when we’re just trying to stop them from hitting us, or we’re needing to help them stay safe and appropriate in some other way. They do this because, as I discussed in my recent podcast, Parent Traps, we’ve made it clear that this is a big important lesson to us that we want them to learn. They are so brilliant and so intuitive that they sense what a vulnerable place that is, and they can get stuck checking that out again and again.

So it’s just going to be easier on us if we teach in the best way, which is relaxed, confident, mellow, little tips, and being there physically right away to help. Not expecting that we’re going to be able to talk a child into or out of behavior. They usually need more. And they’ll show us that by continuing the behavior. They need the physical help and they also need to be seen and accepted and have their point of view understood as much as possible. That’s what keeps them open to this or any kind of guidance that we’re giving them. That’s what makes them get this faster.

And what happens if we’re not able to stay calm and gentle? If we lose our cool around these behaviors, or maybe we make a big, pointed lesson out of them. No worries. All we need to know is that it’ll just take them a few more times to absorb that particular lesson.

Finally, the most important part of this learning —last, but definitely not least— is in the way that we interact with our children, respecting their space and boundaries and defending ours. That’s the most powerful teacher of all, because it’s teaching and modeling all at once. We show respect to our children when we communicate while taking physical actions. Ideally beginning when they’re infants, when we need to pick them up, take their hand, all the details around their care, like with diaper changes, combing their hair, wiping their nose, and respecting their feelings around those moments whenever possible. Maybe they like us to do it a certain way, “Comb my hair this way, not that way.” So taking that in and also being aware that if we’re tickling or roughhousing, it’s easy to go overboard and tough for a child to stop us or say no, because we’re their parents and they want to have a good time with us. When we’re happy, they want to be happy. They want to match our enthusiasm, they have such a strong instinct to connect. And the laughter that they have in these situations isn’t necessarily a sign that they’re enjoying the experience. So that’s just something to consider.

The other part of this is defending our own personal space. And I often receive questions that this applies to: What do I do? My toddler’s grabbing my breast or demanding to be held or carried when I don’t want to at that time or they’re bouncing up and down on my lap. Or even towards the end of the first year sometimes, an infant will keep grabbing our hair when we’re holding them or hurting us somehow during nursing. And we have every right— we not only have every right, but it’s the most loving thing, not harming, to let our baby know that we can’t hold them or continue nursing while they’re doing that. And perhaps we just have an individual preference around the way that we like to be touched or not touched, or we don’t like to be touched much at all. We’re allowed —we’re more than allowed, we’re actually required— to say a loving no to these behaviors. “Hmm, I don’t like that. I’m going to stop you.” Because if we don’t do that and children sense our discomfort but we’re not saying no when it comes to our physical space or personal needs, then they can get confused around boundaries for themselves and other people. So not only is this a vital opportunity for teaching, it’s self-care as well, I mean, it’s more than self-care, it’s survival as a parent in this relationship. And it’s honesty, it’s being personally honest with the most important person to be honest with, which is our child. They know the difference when we’re not.

So trust yourself as a person and as a teacher and a helper for your child and other children. They need help and they can’t help themselves. Defending and understanding personal boundaries takes time and repeated lessons, but children will learn these things this way. Every child I’ve worked with has.

And for those who haven’t yet checked out my No Bad Kids Master Course, I demonstrate these examples I’ve given and many, many more. So you can see my demeanor, my inflections, my attitude. And the feedback I’m getting is that this aspect of the course is especially helpful.

Thank you all so much for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

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

  1. Hi Janet I love this post, well really all your posts! I was wondering about the part that comes next after setting these boundaries with our kids, such as not climbing on grandma. My mom is a very gentle grandma who has a hard time setting boundaries with my daughter who just turned two. I often step in and say I won’t let you climb/hit/pull on grandma in that way while blocking the action or removing her from my mom. This always results in a lot of crying and struggling to get back to grandma. Do you suggest physically holding her back from grandma until she stops? That has resulted in her hitting me then and also has seemed to set this tone for her and i’s relationship because now when I come near her during playtime with grandma she always seems to think I’m the bad guy who is about to take her from grandma. I like to think I do a fairly good job of staying calm and loving while stepping in in these situations and not ever trying to blame/demean my daughter and her actions. I’ve also tried asking her if she’d like to “try again” in certain situations if her emotions are being to seem regulated again and that seems to help but sometimes she’s too on edge to handle that. I’ve also started offering alternatives like “I can’t let hit you hit grandma, I’ll come with you to grab a pillow and you can hit that!” Do you feel like that’s constructive? It obviously doesn’t always work but sometimes it seems to losses the tension in her. Also if a “melt down” is going on for awhile after being removed from a situation or removing a toy ect. Is it a bad idea to suggest the next activity we could do together? I don’t want to rush her emotions with distraction but I also think sometimes she almost gets “stuck” and benefits from a suggestion of what she can do next? Curious to hear your opinion! Thank you for all the work you do, you’ve really changed my entire relationship with my daughter and I can’t thank you enough.

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