Teaching Kids About Personal Space – Part 1

Teaching Kids About Personal Space – Part 1 originally appeared on July 13, 2012.

One of the very best things about M and M is that they LOVE. Oh boy do they love. They welcome everyone into their circle as instant friends, they always have. It’s a beautiful quality that I want to preserve, nurture and mimic.

All of that love can sometimes be overwhelming, especially to friends who aren’t quite as hands on. One of the lessons we practice often is respecting boundaries and personal space. We started when Big M was a toddler and I have a feeling we’ll be teaching our kids about personal space for long time to come. I get it… for someone who will always take a hug it’s hard to understand why someone wouldn’t want one. However, learning to understand what others like or don’t like is important. Learning how to read social cues is essential.

Teaching Kids About Personal Space - for those kids who LOVE to show their love

Teaching Kids About Personal Space – The Prep

Before we see friends (or in this case cousins) who we already know would prefer a quick wave to a bear hug we chat about boundaries.

  • We talk about why we hug? Most likely because we like someone and want to make them happy. Knowing they don’t want a hug and still hugging makes them uncomfortable and that’s not the goal. What are some ways we can express love without a big hug?
  • We discuss the importance of boundaries. Everyone has different comfort levels and everyone has the right to keep their boundaries protected.
  • I haven’t tried it for this situation yet… but I’m sure a behavior book would be a powerful tool.
  • I just found this great book called Personal Space Camp by Julia Cook. It shares a journey of a boy who learns strategies for respecting other peoples personal space. There is even a light bulb moment where he realizes how others might feel about him being in their space. (affiliate link)

Teaching Kids About Personal Space – In the Moment

Sometimes the prep isn’t quite enough. One M or the other will be wrapped around the unsure recipient, hugging away.

  • We gently remove the overeager hugger and ask some questions. “Do you think she wanted a hug?” “How do you know?”
  • We talk about body language. “Did you notice how he moved when you hugged him?” “Did he hug you back?” “Did he pull his body away?” “What do you think that means?”
  • We brainstorm solutions. “What are some other way’s you can let her know you are having fun?” “Can you think of three ways you could say goodbye? What is one way that would make you both happy?”

 Teaching Kids About Personal Space – The Follow Up

Every learning experience can be expanded on (hey I write a blog about that. 🙂 ). Once we’re on our way home or off to the next activity it’s the perfect time to reflect.

  • We try to stick to the positive. “Hey, I noticed that you stopped hugging him right when he took a step back. You must have been noticing his body language telling you to back up a bit.”
  • Talking about unrelated body language clues will help make the idea more concrete. “Did you see when she moved her seat closer to the music? What do you think that meant?”

Teaching kids to respect their friends personal space is important and so is teaching them to protect their own personal space. Which angle are you coming from? Do you have a little one who loves to hug or one that would prefer a little space?

Check out these 20 personal space activities for kids for hands on, playful ways of learning about personal space!


  1. Thanks for some great ideas! My 28 month old dtr loves to kiss and cuddle goodbye, but she has a couple of little friends who aren’t so keen. So you have helped me think about how to talk with her about it. Thanks again, and I am also pinning this!

  2. I teach elementary students including special needs students. I often encounter this problem, and children with autism and other social skill problems often don’t even take enough time to read the body language. These students often do well with a “rule”. So, I tell them we don’t hug people if we don’t know their first name and haven’t seen them at least 3 times. This isn’t a cure all, but it eliminates hugging strangers, particularly adults. Some of my students would hug complete strangers which was a safety concern, and this “rule” has helped with that. It also gives me time to start working on conversations you mentioned, which are very good!

    1. What a great idea creating a “rule”. I’m sure that makes it more concrete and easier for your students to understand such a confusing idea!

    2. That’s a great idea. I have a 4 year old who has no boundaries and is not afraid of strangers. She often hugs people for no reason other than she wants a hug herself! lol I like the idea about using a concrete rule every time.

    3. This is something we will be working on with our daughter. She has William’s Syndrome – and part of that diagnosis is no stranger danger. She only just turned 3. She will sit in strangers’ laps and put her arms up to be picked up by random people. She also says hi to everyone, and touches people. It’s sweet and cute…as well as worrisome. It’ll be a struggle teaching her boundaries, but it’s imperative. Repetition and rules will be the technique.

  3. Any ideas for the other side of this coin? My son has a friend at church that is very affectionate. Holding hands, hugging, wanting to sit very close to him. The part that disturbs me is it’s just towards him and no one else in their class! And they’ve only both just turned 7! I’ve explained to him that it’s best just to hug and hold hands with family, to keep it simple. I’ve asked other mommies in the church and the general consensus is she’s flirting with him. I’d approach her mom about it, but she’s not a very approachable person and if I were to try to correct her daughter, she (mom) would likely be very offended. Ideas on how to deal? Any advice is appreciated!

    1. Yes Heather! I am working on a post about teaching kids to protect their boundaries. I will have it up soon (too much fun stuff happening this weekend. ;)) I’ll let you know when it’s up.

  4. You always have something relevant to the journey I’m enjoying with my 3 year old boy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It really helps!

  5. Gosh this is a good post. My son is very affectionate and sometimes when trying to make new friends he stands far too close to kids who don;t know him and they get scared (especially because he is big for his age). I am trying to teach him about taking a step back to respect their personal space so they have space to breath and don’t feel smothered. Your suggestions are really helpful. Thanks

  6. Jillian,
    Oh, this is such a great post. 2 of my 4 boys LOVE to hug everyone. They are just really affectionate, which is awesome. But, I do notice how it can make some people uncomfortable and I’ve been wanting to discuss with them “boundaries” without squashing their sweet little hearts. Thanks you for these really great conversation starters. So very helpful.


  7. I think this is a great article!! I will definitely be using these tactics with my children (particularly my 9 year old autistic son who quite frequently does not recognize personal space boundaries!) Thank you!

  8. My husband and I are very involved with the Deaf community ( I am hearing and my husband is Deaf) and part of that is affection. In that culture people often hug when they’ve only met once sometimes even if they’ve been recently introduced. Our children are so used to this and being affectionate themselves have struggled with respecting boundaries at school (where they are sometimes hurt when others don’t hug back). Your post is a great way to really discuss this with our kids. They are already so aware of body language (BL and facial expression is a huge part of ASL) that this should definitely help them. Thanks!

  9. Thanks for the advice. I need to try these tips with my wonderfully affectionate 4-year old. Not very child appreciates those extra long hugs.

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  12. This post was very enlightening. I have a very loving 2 year old who’s always ready for a hug and a kiss. He seems to be pretty good with boundaries around strangers, since he doesn’t really like people he doesn’t know much to hold him or get too close. But I think I will need this for his relationships with cousins (specially girls) who as they grow up, will get a uncomfortable with this. I want him to remain sweet and caring, so I don’t wanna tell him to not hug friends or to not get close to people. This is a great way to explain this to a kid!

  13. I work for a non-profit that teaches boundary-setting skills to kids, teens and adults. In addition to the workshops we offer, we also have a number of resources online, both available for purchase and for free. You can find more information at http://www.kidpower.org. Our information about redirecting affection is especially helpful when you want to encourage kids to be loving and to pick up on cues from others. It’s wonderful to see parents talking about these issues, since they can be difficult to discuss!

  14. This always makes me wonder though, you talk about be careful with the feelings of the non-affectionate person, but what about the feelings of the affectionate person? Why are their emotions (expressed with hugging) always squelched? There’s nothing wrong with hugging. Why must the affectionate person learn other ways of showing affection when the non-affectionate person is not required to learn the same? What about respecting the personal boundaries of the affectionate person, they like people in their space, and no one is thinking of their needs.
    Are we encouraging a society where affection, and consequently intimacy, are no longer physical?
    Are children going to be afraid to hug eachother?

    1. Carmen,
      Hmmm That is a very interesting point. These are the techniques we use with our huggers and they are not one bit scared to hug those who want it. They do however pay attention to the cues of other people. Similar to how they know to speak louder when Grandma’s around (she has hearing aids) and how their bodies slow down a bit when their 95 year old Gigi visits (so they don’t knock her over). I will put some thought into the reverse though. Perhaps finding the right words to say. “I know hugs aren’t your favorite thing, but I’m really excited right now. Will you give me a hug?”
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    2. The emotion isn’t squelched when the physical act is redirected so both parties’ boundaries are respected. There IS something wrong with hugging if it makes one of the participants uncomfortable. My shy/reserved 3 year old does not need to learn to tolerate someone he doesn’t know well touching him intimately (a hug is a major intrusion into personal space.) Nor should I have to tolerate an overly affectionate boss who insists on close hugs when it makes me uncomfortable. The problem with your premise that the uncomfortable person should just learn to accept the hug is it can be taken too far and you end up with a child that is more vulnerable to abuse because they won’t enforce their personal boundaries. Hugging is fine when both people consent, which is what the post is trying to teach.

      1. I wanted to add that my son was so adverse to any intrusion into his personal space as a toddler that he would suddenly leap off tall play structures at the park (luckily into my arms) when other children would crowd him too closely. Such a strong “flight response” can be dangerous when the child stops recognizing any dangers around them in an effort to simply get away instead of enforcing personal boundaries.

      2. The physical connection and emotion represented by a handshake is nothing compared to a hug.
        I’m not saying that a child should be forced to hug someone, but I’m not going to force my child not to hug someone either. I will encourage them to ask, to offer something else instead, but I also think that other parents should encourage their non-affectionate children to do the same. Your non-affectionate child may be willing to put himself in physical danger to get away, but what about the psychological effects to an affectionate child who cannot share their emotions? You don’t want to change your child, but you expect me to change mine? (No offense or anything, I’m still trying to figure out the best solution to this myself.)

        1. as an older parent of 6 grown up children i
          have to say im am bewildered by this, why can children not be allowed to make there own choices, if a child really does not want to be hugged by another child surely they would push them away … my children soon did if they didnt want it …. if a child will jump from a play area into a parents arms because there are to many children in his / her space maybe the parent should be far more concerned by this behaviour than worrying about normal toddlers that want to be nice… i truly think parents should embrace this, because once they start school it soon stops without adult intervention trying to drum into our little ones that affection is incorrect behaviour … i really worry what sort of society we are setting ourselves up for in the next 25 yrs .

  15. I have a 4 year old who had to be taught the personal space words over and over. Learning difficulties prevented her from understanding such big conversations after but, I just kept reinforcing whiel she’d play “personal space”.. We used just two word instructions for so long and SHE GOT IT, when without my indepth reinforcements. I still wish I hadve seen this post earlier…I might have added quite a few tips words and ideas you’ve shared here. This is a very useful post I thank you for sharing it again. Also, I LOVE the “follow up idea”–perfect!

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  17. Hi. I feel like other parents advice is so useful. I thank you for listening. I have a 6 year old who is so very sweet and loving and she is so close to me (which I love an remind myself daily will likely change as she gets older). Sometimes she is so close to me that I feel chlosterphobic. When I sit she sits usually on my lap or so close it’s like I’m wearing her. She follows me to every room and when I’m at work she calls me 3 times in a 4 hour period. It’s just so much that I find myself becoming tense and frustrated when I’m just trying to eat or read or just breathe for a moment. How do you suggest I gently help her understand about giving me personal space? My husband privately calls her the barnacle to my ship. She gets wounded so easily if I tell her to back up a bit. Suggestions? I so appreciate your time and opinion.

    Polly Duncan

  18. If there’s one thing we want our kids to learn, it’s having respect of personal space and affection. Or what I would call being human.

    Though most of the things we prioritize in teaching is geared towards making them smarter and developing their minds to be brilliant, we should not forget to tech our kids to use their hearts as well and know when to respect the space of others.

    A great read indeed. Thanks and hope this reaches more and more readers and parents.

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