Carmen Esteban, psychologist: ‘Giving kisses and hugs is not a social skill, it’s something that we do out of love and we don’t always want to do it’

The childhood and adolescence expert says that we’ve got to learn to say ‘no,’ and it’s best to get started on that process when kids are very young. In her new book she offers a guide for families and educators on how to raise kids with respect and consciousness

Carmen Esteban psicóloga
Psychologist Carmen Esteban.

Start them young on education around consent. That is the premise on which Carmen Esteban, a psychologist who specializes in neonatal, infant and adolescent stages, has based her new Spanish language storybook Con sentimiento: El cuerpo solo se toca con permiso (With feeling: Our body can only be touched with our presmission). “From the first moment that our children begin to talk — beginning from when they’re one and a half years old, more or less — we can explain and name their body’s private parts: mouth, chest, butt, vulva and penis. That way, they can get to know their body and respect it,” says the expert, who also gives talks directed at families in high schools, preschools, town halls and on online platforms, in addition to having more than 120,000 followers on her Instagram profile.

The storybook, which is recommended for children who are aged three years and up, features illustrations by Júlia Quintana and addresses the subject of sexual abuse in childhood. It comes with a guide for families and educators who want to teach with awareness and respect: “Prevention is our best ally. It’s best to talk with children and not let them think that they have to have blind trust in everyone around them, or that no one will ever mean them harm.”

Question. Is it acceptable for parents to encourage their children to offer kisses to say hello and goodbye?

Answer. Manners and physical contact should not be tied to each other. Saying hello and goodbye is a social skill and it’s great that we teach kids how to do these things, but why through physical contact? Giving kisses and hugs is not a social skill, it’s something we do out of love and trust, and we don’t always want to do it.

Q. How do kids perceive us trying to force or bribe them into doing something, and how can those behaviors affect them?

A. Emotional blackmail is a tool for manipulation. When we bribe a child, we are asking them to disconnect from their emotions and act in the way we want them to and that can have the contradictory effect of making them feel less loved. That directly affects their self-respect, because they learn that what other people expect or want from them is more important than their own needs.

Q. What should a kid be taught about when they feel unpleasant emotions regarding certain people?

A. That the unpleasant emotion is not bad, it’s just warning them and probably, protecting them from something dangerous. The child should learn to listen to that feeling and to act on it. One of the reasons that people feel bad about ourselves is because our think-feel-act triangle is not in harmony. We must learn to listen to our feelings and thoughts to be able to act on them.

Q. How can we teach kids the best way to react when someone touches them without their permission?

A. In my book, Enzo asks that same question. An important exercise we can do at home is asking kids which adults they trust, and once they respond, explaining to them that if anyone every touches them without their permission, they can always tell someone they trust.

“It’s best to talk with children and not let them think that they have to have blind trust in everyone around them,” says psychologist Carmen Esteban.
“It’s best to talk with children and not let them think that they have to have blind trust in everyone around them,” says psychologist Carmen Esteban.Morsa Images (Getty Images)

Q. The protagonist’s mom talks to him about consent. How can we explain the act of confidently saying “no”?

A. Assertiveness is a social skill that consists in knowing how to say “no” while respecting the other person. Before, we were told that we should put other people’s interests above our own and that if we didn’t, we were egotistical. But egoism is different from self-respect. You can learn to say “no” — you can start teaching this when kids are as young as three — and still think about yourself with respect. In the book, there’s a downloadable activity for families and educators that can serve to train kids in being assertive.

Q. The abuser asks the child to keep a secret: Should kids know that they shouldn’t hide things that are bothering them from their parents?

A. Totally. It’s important to explain the difference between secret and surprise. A secret is something that makes us feel bad, that another person wants to cover up and hid for a long time. In contrast, a surprise generates a happy feeling, implies something nice for another person, who will eventually ending up knowing about it.

Q. Childhood sexual abuse is a form of violence that can be hard to detect. What are some of its indicators?

A. It’s hard to detect because, in the majority of cases, it’s perpetrated by a family member or someone who is close to the child. That often confuses the kid; they can be scared to talk to anyone because they don’t want anything to happen to their abuser or to not be believed, or they feel guilty or ashamed about what happened. Because of this, it’s important to be alert to warning signs. Some of these are abrupt changes in behavior or on an emotional level, social withdrawal, loss of appetite, hyperactivity, aggressive behavior, use of age-inappropriate language or sexual behavior, compulsive masturbation, embarrassment over being seen naked, fear or anxiety about a certain person, developmental regression (enuresis, encopresis), unexplained fears, and nightmares.

Q. If their child has been the victim of sexual assault, what should parents do?

A. We should listen to them, respect their process and their silence. When it comes time to ask questions, they should be open-ended, like, “What time of day did it happen?” instead of asking leading questions like, “Did it happen when you were sleeping?” It’s also important to validate their emotions and empathize with them: “This must be hard for you.” It’s fundamental to assure them that you are going to help them. If the child is asking us not to say anything, we should always tell them the truth and not lie to them, not tell them we’re going to keep it a secret, because it’s important that the kid has trust in us for the long term, so that they don’t change their story later.

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