“What’s Wrong with a Hug?: When a child in our church complained about an adult volunteer’s physical affection, we faced a difficult decision.”
In reality, there are many forms of abuse, including emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse. If we think of abuse only as sexual, we will miss other forms of abuse, many of which are precursors to sexual abuse itself.
The problem with an unwanted hug is not that it is a hug, but that it is unwanted. The problem is that a child has as much right to consent or to refuse physical affection as adults do. –Anonymous
Respecting children’s boundaries is important for both children and the adults who care for them. When we allow children to make choices about touch and forms of physical affection, we are teaching them that their body is theirs and no one else’s. Having this understanding will create a space in which they can inform caring adults if and when someone has violated them. If they believe they have no agency, they will not feel safe to disclose harm done against them. Furthermore, when adults respect children’s autonomy, they lead by example. Children will learn to respect other people’s personal boundaries and bodies.
It can be difficult to view certain forms of physical affection — like hugs — as violations. But hugs, just like all other types of touch, require consent. Even if the touch is well-meaning, an adult who disregards a child’s boundaries is making that child feel unsafe. Adults who violate boundaries must be held accountable in order to ensure children’s safety. By challenging smaller boundary violations, a community will be more equipped to respond to and even prevent more harmful forms of physical and sexual abuse.
As seen in this article, it can be difficult to challenge boundary-violating adults who are well-loved in our community. However, ensuring the well-being of a child, who is dependent on caring adults, should always take priority.