The other week YWCA Violence Prevention Educators and I did an activity with six classes of 7th and 8th graders called a boundaries checklist. The checklist is four pages long and has lists of interpersonal behaviors around which people have differing boundaries. Students are supposed to read through the list, stopping for each item and taking a moment to imagine themselves experiencing it. How do they think they would feel? They rate their comfort level on a scale of one to ten.
Towards the end, some of the list items are about intimate and sexual behaviors, such as “being partially naked in front of a friend” or “a person touching my private body parts (those that are covered by a swimsuit) without asking first.” We were prompted to talk about these boundaries with students because administrators, teachers, and social workers shared that their students were already encountering them. As students get to this part of the list, some start to squirm, fidget, and giggle as they come across a topic they aren’t usually encouraged to talk about with adults.
Intimate boundaries are not just for older teens and adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control: “Among adult victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, 22% of women and 15% of men first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age” (2014). Even if many 7th and 8th graders might not think about doing these behaviors for years, identifying their own boundaries and recognizing and navigating discomfort is a skill they can begin practicing now to be more prepared for whenever that time comes.
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM). Boundaries, especially intimate ones, are often first explored during adolescence. Based on personal experience and feedback from my students, a lot of people don’t realize what their own boundaries are until someone crosses them. In honor of TDVAM, I put together six tips that people across ages can use to proactively communicate their boundaries with their loved ones:
1. Things are going to get awkward. When I asked a group of 7th graders how they would want someone to respond when they communicated their boundaries, one said “Maybe they could make a joke, to help with how awkward it is.” These types of conversations, although difficult and intimidating, are also a great way to build trust and make your future interactions more comfortable.
2. Allow adequate time and attention. A conversation about understanding and setting boundaries should happen outside of the context of that boundary: i.e. if you want to talk about a sexual boundary, that conversation should not be happening right before, after, or during sexual activity. This also means no one should demand another to have a conversation about boundaries immediately without warning.
3. Make it reciprocal. Say your own boundary, but then ask your partner how they feel/what their boundary is. Along with this, you can accentuate “positive boundaries—” or things you like and are comfortable with. The conversation doesn’t have to be just a list of “no’s.”
4. Consider clarity. Especially when it comes to sexual euphemisms, words and terms can mean different things to different people. An example is the phrase “hooking up.” Exactly what sexual behaviors do you associate with this term?
5. Think in terms of spectrums. Boundaries are rarely just a yes or a no—there is often a lot that goes into creating a situation we feel comfortable or uncomfortable in. You may have some boundaries that are an absolute no. There may be other things that you are open to in the future or only in certain circumstances.
6. Boundaries change all the time. This isn’t a one-time conversation; set up a flow of communication where you and the other person are constantly checking back in with each other.
Hallie Cohen is part of our team of Violence Prevention Educators at YWCA Evanston/North Shore who facilitate a program called Building Healthy Relationships. With integrated components for elementary, middle and high school, we help students build the social-emotional skills they need to treat one another with respect and dignity as they mature. Learn more here.