When we happened to bump into a group of new acquaintances a few months ago, I could feel Jane tugging at my hand, wiggling with excitement at the prospect of meeting new people. I held on tightly to keep her from bounding across the parking lot. As we approached, I quickly reminded her about things she often forgets in social interactions, like “personal space.”

But none of my careful priming did any good. Jane wrenched her hand from mine and began lunging everyone—people we’d met perhaps once or twice, and whose names she certainly did not yet remember. I directed her not to hug these acquaintances, but to shake hands and give high fives instead. One of the women in the group brushed me off, as she gazed at my daughter’s infectiously smiling face, saying, “Oh, it’s fine, really! We’re all safe, here! She’s so sweet!”

The next instant, Jane had started tickling and poking two of the people—a man and a woman. I saw my daughter getting more and more hyper and out of control, and called her back to me nervously. She ignored me, encouraged by the laughter and attention. I felt powerless to enforce my rules, knowing that insisting on personal space now—once she had been given permission by others—would likely result in a meltdown. I didn’t want to seem rude. I felt helpless.

Then, as the tickling game escalated, Jane—giddy and unaware of her body—quite accidentally touched the man’s crotch area. The same woman who had told me Jane’s hugs and tickling were okay sharply exclaimed, “Oh no! That is not okay! We don’t touch people like that!”

I wanted to tell her that I had seen this coming—that there were good reasons for my rules, and that this is one reason we were working on appropriate physical boundaries in the first place. Instead, I picked up Jane—who was then both upset and confused—and walked away.

My youngest daughter, Jane, is the most outgoing, naturally funny, charming child you will ever meet. Perhaps because of her language delay, she has an incredible lexicon of facial expressions and dramatic poses that she uses to assist her communication. She is magnetic, entertaining, and adorable. She is a radiant pixy of a child.

When she was placed in foster care at the age of two, she was also completely nonverbal. When she did begin to speak, she referred to every adult as “mama”—and treated every adult like “mama.”

There could be many reasons from this. She came from a chaotic home—maybe she was never secure in who her “mama” really was. In foster care, she was moved from household to household and told each time that those strangers were suddenly her family—maybe she began to think all strangers were also family. She was not diagnosed as being deaf until later, and language deprivation impacted not only her communication, but her behavior, social skills, and play skills as well—maybe this was one of many pieces of information about the world that she simply missed in the silence of her early years.

Whatever the reason, social interactions between Jane and strangers whiplash between hilarious and anxiety-inducing for me. Jane puts her arms around people shopping at Home Depot. She asked for chips off a man’s plate while waiting for her food at a taqueria. She climbs onto the lap of anyone sitting near her at church. One of her favorite things to tell me is, “All people love me!” And she is right. They do.

But unfortunately, it is not safe to love everyone in this world. And it is not healthy to love them all the same.

My daughter is not the only child I know who eschews socially appropriate boundaries on a daily basis. As a foster parent, I had other children who found boundaries challenging—not all of them physical. I had a foster daughter who hoarded food and tried to persuade everyone to give her sweets. I know other foster and adoptive parents whose children beg for food out of insecure habit, despite being well-fed. Other foster children found the boundaries of information sharing difficult, unable to differentiate what should be public and what should be private. I had a foster child whose teacher tried to act like a therapist, delving into deeply sensitive personal information and ultimately doing more harm than good, as he came home and declared, “I’m much more attached to my teacher than I am to you! I just follow her around like a puppy!” As a special education teacher, I also witness children with autism and other disabilities inadvertently fumble over social cues—and I watch how people respond.

Most people whom I’ve observed responding to children like my daughter and my students fall into two categories: judgmental and well-intended permissiveness. The first category is much smaller, and I give it much less thought. A few people in this world are truly terrible, impatient, and unkind. I don’t have time to talk about them. In my experience, however, most people want to do their best to treat children with special needs or trauma with love, grace, and acceptance. They see a child who needs extra time and love, and they want to provide that. They just don’t always know how. So, rather than helping to reinforce the boundaries that the child needs, they tell me “It’s okay.”

When someone says “It’s okay” in response to Jane’s behavior, I understand that they are really saying, “I don’t mind.” The breakdown in communication is that I don’t really care whether they mind or not; I don’t want her doing it, I have good reasons for this, and I need their support.

But people don’t always know why those boundaries are crucial to my daughter. And, even if they did, they wouldn’t know what to say to her, so as to not look like an uncaring jerk.

Reinforcing socially appropriate behavior is important to both children with disabilities and children who have attachment and other trauma-related issues for a number of reasons. First, children from these backgrounds thrive on routine. It is difficult to override what is “normal” and expected based on their experience and behavior history. Socially inappropriate or developmentally immature behaviors may continue years after other children have learned to act differently. My daughter’s behavior is inappropriate for her age, even now, but she is still young enough to be “cute.” It won’t be so cute when she is ten. And the longer the habit is reinforced, the harder it is to break.

Second, my daughter is trying with all her might to figure out how this attachment thing works. The healthiest thing in the world for her development and long term well-being is to become attached to me as her primary caregiver. She can’t do that if everyone keeps sending her mixed messages about whom she can turn to for her fundamental needs, such as food and familial affection. She needs to know that there is a difference between strangers and family—and that certain behaviors are appropriate with one and not the other.

My advice to the kind people who want to know what to say to my daughter—or any child who struggles with appropriate boundaries—is to first ask yourself not what you know about my child, but what my child knows about you. I have no doubt that the sweet old ladies at church who beckon my daughter to sit on their laps have the purest of hearts. But what proof does my daughter have of that? She has no history with them. From her perception, she is interacting with a total stranger.

If my child knows that you are acting in a professional or official capacity—such as a childcare worker or teacher—this may impact what is acceptable. However, if she has no knowledge of you at all, then it doesn’t matter that you know you are a safe person in a safe place. She doesn’t know that. And it is healthy for her to act guarded. After all, if it was okay for her to sit on a stranger’s lap on Sunday, it will certainly seem okay to sit on a stranger’s lap when we go to the park on Monday. And the greatest fear of my life is that an evil person will ask Jane to go somewhere with them. Because she would blithely do it.

And every time she hugs a stranger, to me it is one more social interaction reaffirming to her that boundaries are not important, and that it is safe to treat every person like her best friend without preamble or precaution.

So, if being permissive with children who struggle with boundaries is not the answer, then what is? My recommendation would be to always, always take cues from the parent, and respect the rules they are trying to establish. And while I can’t speak for every parent, I have found that most people appreciate a kind (compliment sandwich!) correction, making both the error and an appropriate alternative explicit. If a child you don’t know attempts to hug you, say, “Wow! I love how friendly you are! But we don’t know each other, yet, so let me show you how to shake hands!”

Recently, while watching my daughters’ gymnastics class, a little girl weaving in and out of rows of parents jumped right in front of my face, onto my lap, and shouted “Boo!” She was clearly bored of waiting for her sibling’s class to be done, and wanted some attention. Purely out of habit, I said, “Oh my goodness, I can tell you want to play! But you’re really close to my face, and that makes me uncomfortable because we don’t know each other, yet. Let’s take a step back and talk!” I didn’t know whether the girl had a diagnosis, or whether this was a common occurrence or an isolated event. But the girl’s mother mouthed “Thank you!” from across the room with an expression on her face that told me everything I needed to know.

Sometimes, the best way to show love to a child is to show them who and when it is appropriate to love—even if that doesn’t include you. Another fear of mine is that, one day in the distant future, Jane—who treats all strangers like family—is going to be hurt by a stranger, and it is going to affect how she trusts her family, if we’re all in the same, big circle.

How dazzling it must be to flit around like the world is your cocktail party—so many people to talk to, so little time. But how lonely when trouble strikes, and that party sours to an undifferentiated, grey mass, and you’re left insecure about where to turn for comfort and help.

So I do my best to establish concentric circles for her: a cozy, little circle for just her family, who provide for all her needs and give her all our kisses; another, slightly bigger circle, for our closest friends, whom it is okay to cuddle to her heart’s content; a still bigger circle for the teachers, ASL interpreters, pastors, and other authorities and helpers, whose hands it is okay to hold, as they help her to grow; and so on until, far out beyond that, the biggest circle of wonderful strangers she is just dying to meet.

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