Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower International Founder and Executive Director
Have you ever noticed that sometimes people don’t listen to you? Or that they get upset when you ask them to stop doing something? Being prepared to persist in setting boundaries in a calm and powerful way can help to improve relationships and to stop harmful behavior.
Someone might cross your boundaries by:
1. Not Noticing that you don’t like something they are saying or doing
2. Not Listening when you ask them to stop
3. Making You Wrong by using emotional coercion to make you feel badly about setting your boundary.
4. Breaking the Safety Rules or Crossing the Line to pressure you to let go of your boundary.
5. Making You Promise Not to Tell anyone about the boundary problem.
These Five Levels of Boundary Intrusions are often a pattern of behavior when someone is trying to pressure someone else to do what they want. A person might act like this because of thoughtlessness; self-centeredness; experimenting with negative uses of their power; or grooming a young person or a vulnerable individual to accept abusive behavior.
When teaching, we avoid discussing the reasons why someone might cross boundaries. Instead, we focus on what the safety rules are and on how to handle different kinds of boundary problems. We start by introducing the Kidpower or Teenpower/Fullpower Boundary and Consent Checklist, which is that any kind of touch, play, or activities should be:
2. Allowed by the adults in charge;
3. Not a secret, which means others can know;
4. AND, touch or play for fun or affection should also be the choice of each person
We practice with simple everyday problems with peers and with adults that are emotionally safe, age-appropriate, and relevant for the lives of our students. Examples might include touch, affection, or games – such as a hand on a shoulder, holding someone’s hand, or pretending in the air to play too rough, hug, kiss, tickling, etc. For older students, we add more complex examples, like someone wanting them to steal, use drugs, go somewhere unsafe, or accept a ride with a drunken driver.
In our Kidpower, Teenpower, and Fullpower workshops, we coach our students so they know what to say and what to do to protect their boundaries at each of the Five Levels of Intrusion:
1. Doesn’t Notice.
We say, “Suppose someone doesn’t notice that their behavior is bothering you. Your first job is to tell them in a strong and respectful way, using your eyes, your words, and your body. Even if you like something at first, it is okay to change your mind.”
To practice, you can put a hand on your student’s shoulder in a matter-of-fact (NOT creepy) way and coach the student to firmly and calmly pick up and give back your hand, look you in the eyes, and say, “Please stop,” using a firm and clear voice.
2. Doesn’t Listen.
We say, “Suppose someone doesn’t listen by repeating the behavior and/or saying something dismissive.” We point out simply that sometimes other people don’t listen or hear our boundary the first time – and that we ourselves also don’t always listen to someone’s boundary the first time.
To practice, put your hand back on your student’s shoulder and say plaintively, “Oh, but we always do this.” Or, “You know you like this.” Coach your student to stand up, take a step back, make a fence toward you with their hands, and say in a polite and firm voice, “I said stop! I don’t like it.”
3. Tries to Make You Wrong/Uses Emotional Coercion.
We say, “This is when someone gets upset and tries to make you feel badly for asking them to stop. The reality is that most of us don’t like being told what to do or being told that we did something wrong. We can show that we care about someone and want to be respectful while still setting our boundary.”
To practice: After your student has told you to stop, say sadly, “That hurts my feelings. If you liked me, you’d let me do it.” Or, say a little angrily, “That’s disrespectful.”
Coach your student to stand up, take a step back, make their fence, and say, “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings (or to be disrespectful), and please stop.” Or, “I am sorry you are sad, and I still want you to stop.” Or simply, “I’m sorry, and please stop.”
Being able to recognize emotional coercion, acknowledge other person’s feelings, and still set clear, respectful, and firm boundaries is an important life skill for many situations.
4. Breaks the Safety Rules/Crosses the Line.
We say, “There are different ways someone might break the safety rules or cross the line to get you to let go of your boundary – such as offering an unsafe bribe, misusing their power, making a threat, or not respecting your right to consent.”
To practice, you can offer an unsafe bribe by saying, “I’ll get you the game you want (or some other example relevant for this student) if you will just let me put my hand on your shoulder.” Coach the student to stand up, step back, make their fence, look you in the eyes, and say, “Stop or I’ll tell.” Or, “Stop or I’ll report you.” This language is especially useful for older kids and teens with an adult who is greater in power. If this problem is with a peer crossing the line, they can also say, “Stop, or I’ll leave.” Or, “Stop, or else you have to leave.”
You can help students practice role plays about misuse of power in ways that are not too intense by saying,, “I’m bigger than you, so you have to do what I say.” Or, “I’ll tell everyone what a loser you are if you don’t do what I want.” Or, “I’m in charge and you HAVE to do what I say.” Again, coach your student to say, “Stop or I’ll report you.”
Tell your students that, even if the difficult person you are pretending to be stops, their job is to get to safety as soon as possible and tell an adult they trust about what happened. Remind them that problems should not have to be secrets and that they should keep telling adults they trust, even if the first one doesn’t help, until they get the help they need.
5. Tries to Make You Promise Not to Tell
Young people need to know that lying or breaking a promise might be necessary in order to get away from someone who is acting unsafely and pressuring them not to tell. It is unsafe to have to keep secrets about any kind of touch, problem, or a gift someone gives you – or about anything about people and their private areas.
Explain to your students that, “Most of the time, it is important to tell the truth and keep your promises. And, if someone is acting unsafely and tries to make you promise not to tell, your safest choice might be to lie and break your promise to get away from this person and get help. If this happens, it is important to tell an adult you trust as soon as you can.”
When we practice role plays about threats, we are always very careful to say low-level threats that are emotionally safe and age-appropriate. We do not want to put any images into our student’s mind that don’t need to be there.
Coach your student move back to make space between you, make their fence, and say, “Stop or I’ll tell.” Or, “Stop or I’ll report you.” Say in a non-intense way, “Please don’t tell. I couldn’t hang out with you if you tell.” Or, “You’d better not tell, or I’ll get you into trouble.”
Coach your student to step back, keep up their fence, look at you, and say, “I won’t tell, if you stop.” Remind students that, once they get away from this difficult person you are pretending to be, their job is to tell an adult they trust about what has happened, and to keep telling until they get the help they need.
After these practices, we then have our students practice being persistent and effective in interrupting busy, impatient adults in a way that allows them to tell or make their report about the safety problem.
We also encourage adults to make our Kidpower Protection Promise to every young person you might be in a position to support – so that they know you care and that you are an adult they can trust to help with problems.
We have many other free and low cost resources for explaining and practicing these skills including these articles, ebooks, and print publications:
- Touch and Consent in Healthy Relationships Skills
- Boundary and Consent Posters in Different Languages
- Sometimes the People Kids Love Have Problems
- Safe and Unsafe Secrets
- Acting Friendly or Being a True Friend
- What to Do If A Child Comes to you for Help
- Kidpower Skills Guide on Stopping Unwanted Touch
- Free eBook: Kidpower’s 30 Skill Challenge Coaching eHandbook
- Books: Kidpower Safety Comics Series, cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Curriculum Teaching Books, The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults, the Kidpower Child Protection Advocacy Workbook, and Doing Right by Our Kids – Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.