A few months ago I sat on my couch talking on the phone with a close friend while I attempted to explain the fact that we are born with an innate sense of self-preservation. Through nurturing this sense, we can learn to direct ourselves away from danger or negativity and toward what is helpful for us as we navigate life with increasing trust in the signals of our bodies.
“Are you saying that a baby can tell if he’s by the edge of a bed? A little baby? That sounds like a really dangerous assumption to me,” he said.
I replied, “I am saying that the baby can sense a difference in how his body feels when he is sitting right near the edge. If he is allowed to explore the edge a bit with an adult safely nearby so as to catch him if he falls, he will learn to tune into this sense and use it to his benefit. However, if the parent rushes in and scoops him up each time he is near the edge or reinforces fear, he doesn’t have as many opportunities to become aware of his body and the space around him in a neutral, observational, and experiential way.”
Awareness leads to personal safety. I say this as someone who has experienced sexual abuse, violence, unfortunate mishaps, and the more simple everyday occurrences like stubbing my toe. As I have practiced becoming aware of my body, its signals, and my surroundings, I have noticed a great increase in personal safety and the ability to handle life experiences. I don’t grumble if I stub my toe, and I stub my toe much less because I am aware of where my toes are going.
Anyhow, enough about me. Let’s talk about little ones. I encourage you to learn along with your littles if the concept of safety through whole body awareness is new to you.
I’ve already mentioned safety, which is not only the focus of this article, but very important to all parents and people. Additional benefits include being able to sense if one is not well or is reacting to something in the environment (noise, lights, foods, smells, etc.); increased ability to listen, feel, and communicate; increased ability to care for the body with respect; and increased ability to communicate body boundaries and respect those of others. I’m sure there are many more I have not listed and I invite you to discover your own.
Ways to Encourage Body Awareness
Start with yourself. In order to really cultivate body awareness in your child it’s likely that you may benefit from starting with yourself. We’re always modeling, so our kids pick up body awareness by watching and listening to us.
Begin to non-judgmentally notice how your body feels. If you judge yourself, just notice the judgments and bring your focus back to your body. You might start in the morning before you get out of bed. Scan yourself from head to toe, from the inside. This takes only a few moments and can be very informative as well as relaxing and/or energizing.
As you go about your day, notice when you’re caught up in what you’re doing and bring your attention more fully into your body. If you don’t feel safe, locate the emotion or sensation in your body. Inquire into it to see if it has a message for you.
Most importantly, begin honoring the signals of your body. If you are typing or reading and have to go to the bathroom, consider making a statement out loud that you’re really enjoying what you’re doing and you’re going to stop to honor your body/bladder because you need to use the toilet/restroom. This conveys to your child that it is healthy and worthwhile to respect the signals of the body.
Elimination communication is a way to begin at birth. While we’re on the subject of toileting, elimination communication is a very effective way to start encouraging whole body awareness with babies and young children. The purpose of elimination communication is to honor the child’s ability to tune into elimination functions of the body. Even if you use diapers, starting a simple conversation about elimination nurtures body awareness from birth.
To start with a baby, allow the baby to lie without a diaper on top of some some towels or cloth diapers. When the baby eliminates, make a “sssss” sound. This enhances the association between the body and the senses and creates a way to communicate about elimination without judgment. Alternatively, you can blow gently on the baby’s head (beneficial if there is a question of whether or not the baby can hear).
Notice how baby moves his body before and while he eliminates. This helps you become aware of his bodily signals during elimination. When he shows these signals, if he has just fed or got up from sleeping, or if you just feel he may need to eliminate, hold him with his back to your belly in a supported squat while you hold him under his upper thighs over a pot.
Encouraging awareness of elimination signals is very similar with an older child. Communicating simply allows the child to heed the signal without any interference or judgment from anyone else.
Nurture healthy touch. One way we become aware of our bodies is through being touched. We get to determine what types of touch we like, what types we do not, and how our bodies feel when we are touched.
When our children primarily know healthy, loving touch that respects body boundaries they are able to communicate when something doesn’t feel right. If they are receiving mixed types of touch it may be more difficult.
Some families nurture healthy touch through baby wearing, hand holding when desired, hugs, back rubs, massage, high fives, safe wrestling, or other contact activities. Honoring your child’s desire not to be touched allows her to keep her body safe in ways that are meaningful to her.
Encourage the exploration of body sensations with curiosity rather than judgment. Sometimes if our kids come to us with a scrape or a bellyache, a tight muscle or a headache, we want to fix it. This is honorable, and it is helpful to work toward relieving suffering.
We can encourage whole body awareness at the same time by asking questions and allowing our children to answer from their experience instead of leading them with our conclusions. This allows them to more deeply connect with their bodies, which can be really helpful if they ever have a serious situation they need to communicate about.
If a child comes with a complaint of a physical or even emotional nature, consider asking questions like “Can you describe what that feels like? Can you point to where you feel that? On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the worst pain ever, how painful is the feeling? What do you think would help? What happens if you feel your breath go all the way to that spot? Do you think a glass of water would help?”
Notice if you feel strongly about fixing the situation, and allow yourself to relax into the inquiry process a bit. You can do this along with holding your child, cleaning a scrape, getting some water, or whatever else you feel is necessary. Sometimes allowing children to really get into the root of what they are experiencing in their body while fully listening to them provides for just the healing and awareness that can benefit them.
Allow children to safely explore body boundaries. Each child is unique, as is each child–adult combination at any given time. First, respect your own safety boundaries. Stay nearby and be ready to assist if you are allowing a child to explore a balance beam, the edge of a bed, or driving a car for the first few times. Depending on your child’s age, you may want to be holding hands, staying within an arm’s reach, or simply in the vicinity.
If you have a child who is naturally adventurous and you feel tense, do what you need to do to feel safe, then watch. Notice how your child handles the motion, evaluates or glides with each movement, or falls and slips some to regain a sense of balance. The human body can be self-correcting when allowed.
If you are close by or some other time when you can have a conversation, ask your child how it feels to climb, jump, run, stretch. Ask him if he receives any signals when he is challenging himself too much and what he does in response to those signals. If your child is preverbal, notice what he does when he tests his physical limits as you observe.
Nurture the ability to challenge and grow through fear gently through body awareness. When we honor our bodies, we can work through fear in various ways. To help children do this, as a basis we need to honor their body signals by respecting the times they ask us not to touch them, providing nourishing food and water when they are hungry and a restful place to sleep when they are tired, and by not using discipline methods that include harming the body of the child. Instead, we can use teaching techniques that nurture the ability to honestly express emotion, learn, problem solve, and work together.
There are various situations that warrant fear in children – doing something they haven’t done before, receiving unwanted medical care, petting a new dog, or even climbing up a tall slide. Allowing the child to have the experience of fear nurtures the ability to respond by choice, instead of in a rehearsed way that another thinks she should react when she feels afraid.
Fear comes up in the mind and body. When we honor that emotion in our body, we can learn to discern if it is a fear we want to move through, talk with someone about, or do something about. Some fears are completely legitimate: for example, if the child is climbing on a high ledge, a dog runs from out of nowhere toward the child, or if the child has had a similar experience in the past that was scary. If you notice fear in your child, gently encourage her to notice where she feels it in her body, if it has a message, and if she would like to proceed anyway with whatever she is attempting to do physically.
If not, allow your child to choose as often as possible, honoring fear. If she is interested in doing it anyway (which she may be more apt to try if she sees you walk through fear in a similar way), support her in gently moving forward to explore what she can do with her mind and body.
While some people may not be initially supportive of encouraging safety through whole body awareness, we can enhance the experience of our children by honoring them in this way.
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