Parent-to-child body massage has been recommended for the treatment of several childhood ailments, including anxiety, attachment issues, and even sexual abuse (Powell & Cheshire 141). Some people believe that parents should change the way they touch their children when the child reaches a certain age. Full body massage for a five-year old may develop different connotations or emotional experiences once that child reaches the age of fifteen, for example. Therefore, the difficulty lies in defining what is and is not sexually appropriate, or what constitutes child sexual abuse. It is important to evaluate the various developmental stages and experiences of children at different ages, and how the child’s experience with full body massage may change over time, and vary depending on the sex of the parent giving the massage.
As of yet, there is no clear definition of child sexual abuse (Haugaard 1036). Some professionals see child sexual abuse as any unwanted touching, fondling, or penetration, while others view child sexual abuse as inclusive of non-tactile acts such as discussing sexually explicit material, appearing naked in front of a child, or viewing pornography in front of a child (Haugaard 1036). The key to defining sexual abuse is determining whether or not the child’s preferred boundaries have been crossed. If a child feels uncomfortable at any time, he or she should be able to voice that discomfort. Adults must teach children how and when to express boundaries, and should advocate asking the child for permission to touch so that the child becomes familiar with healthy forms of touch and respect for one’s boundaries.
Therefore, if a parent – either mother or father – gives a male or female child of ages six or twelve months of age a full-body, non-genital massage, there will be no issue of whether or not the child feels uncomfortable as the child is likely used to being touched and handled by both of his or her parents. Before the age of two years old, children are still experiencing diaper changes and bath time with parents. By the age of two years old, both male and female children will begin to use words, and parents can begin to introduce language to the child that helps the child learn to express agreement or disagreement to certain behaviors. Both mother and father should begin teaching the child to use his or her words around the age of two years old, so that the child can develop the vocabulary to express what he or she wants or does not like to other children, siblings, care givers, and eventually teachers.
By the age of five years old, however, the parents – both mother and father – should begin teaching their child that certain areas are not acceptable to touch. In particular, parents should teach their children – boys and girls – that if the child is uncomfortable with a particular touch, then the child should say “no.” Therefore, full body massage at the age of five years old – for boys and girls – is acceptable, but should be contextualized with words of consent and phrases such as “are you comfortable?” By the age of ten years old, children are approaching puberty. Mothers and fathers should discuss with children the impending implications of male and female touch. In order to demonstrate healthy boundaries, mothers should not full-body massage their sons and fathers should not full-body massage their daughters. However, fathers and mothers should still massage both their sons’ and daughters’ shoulders, hands, or arms. By the age of fifteen, however, mothers and fathers should not full-body massage their sons or daughters. However, shoulder, arm, and hand massages should be acceptable with the child’s consent for mothers to sons, mothers to daughters, fathers to sons, and fathers to daughters. Massage has great benefits to decreasing anxiety, heart rate, blood pressure, depression, and in the treatment of adjustment disorders (Powell & Cheshire 142). Massage is a great way for parents to help their children cope with emotional stressors. However, as children get older, gender boundaries should be taken into account to develop a healthy sense of self and healthy coping skills.
- Haugaard, Jeffrey J. “The Challenge of Defining Child Sexual Abuse.” American Psychologist, 55.9 (2000): 1036-9.
- Powell, Lesley and Anna Cheshire. “A Preliminary Evaluation of a Massage Program for Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused and their Nonabusing Mothers.” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 19.1 (2010): 141-55.