Safe, Not Sterile: Showing Affection

Categories: Guest Blog, Take Two For Prevention


As part of our Two Minutes for Prevention series, Stewards of Children® author Paula Sellars provides additional insights and experience about the topic covered in the video below. 

One of the best things about children, especially the little ones, is their openness and receptivity. Simply by their nature, children call forth our affection. Being in the presence of a child, we smile. We find ways to make ourselves smaller, less threatening. We ask questions and listen. We show enthusiasm. We mirror.  If the child knows us and is comfortable, we might touch and cuddle. All of this nurtures the child, but it also feeds us at a very instinctive and deep level.

We just feel more in our hearts during time with a child.

Parental warmth and affection has been linked to higher self esteem in children, better adult-child communication, and fewer psychological and behavioral problems. Affection has even been positively related to better academic performance for teens, better problem solving, and more frequent use of social supports. Conversely, lack of parental affection and warmth can contribute to associations with negative peers, diminished self-esteem, antisocial behaviors, and even teen pregnancy.

Affection is life giving.

The warmth and affection we feel for children is a big reason many of us choose to work with them. We spend our days feeling more open, engaged, grounded, and fulfilled because of them. Children bring out our tenderness, and that benefits them and us.

And yet in youth serving settings we are asked to be mindful of children’s boundaries, for their protection and ours. On the surface it can seem like the fundamentals of relating to children must be tossed out the window as a sad but necessary prerequisite for safety.

But let’s remember the upshots of affection – warmth and belonging. In a child-caring environment, that’s what we’re really after.

So beyond the hugs, kisses, and holding of children that families often share, let’s explore the many forms of affection we can give in a youth serving environment.

We all know about high fives, pats on the back, fist bumps and side hugs. These are definitely joining, congratulatory responses, often to a child’s good performance. They’re fun and enthusiastic, and they say “good job!”

Welcoming a child into the day and using his name conveys warmth. “Hi Max!  Good to see you this morning!”

Singing songs, group art projects, and cooperative games create belonging.

Showing earnest interest in a child’s feelings, in his work, in her play conveys their importance.

We can sit shoulder to shoulder with a child and read together.

Making food together, even if just an afternoon snack, connects us.

Joining in children’s play rather than just spectating also creates a bond and says “I enjoy time with you.” It brings out the playful and silly in us, which they and we need.

And what about when a child is not performing well? What about when he or she is failing in some way, or misbehaving? Even then we can offer warmth. We can look gently into a child’s eyes and speak quietly with her. We can sit side by side and talk it over. We can touch a shoulder when we convey that we know they’ll do better. And we can almost always find something positive to remember out loud about the child.

It’s powerful to tell children individually, or as a group exercise, the traits we see in them as most valuable. “I’m so proud of you!” spoken with authenticity really affirms a child.  Remembering to thank a child, is an acknowledgment that says, “I see you and your effort is meaningful to me.”

We can shake or squeeze a hand and say, “What you did for ‘Sarah’ was really kind.”

There are countless ways to affirm a child – as many as the day is long.

If you’ve read this far, it’s because you’re creative and you care about children. I imagine you want to develop not only their skills, but also their hearts – their being.

Please check in with the video and share in the comments section how you create warmth and belonging as you serve children.

For more in-depth learning, tools, and practical guidelines to help adults prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse, take Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children®. Find out more at

Paula Sellars is Executive Vice President of Phoenix Possibilities Inc., a company that fosters social change and leadership through the skills of personal risk. Formerly a family therapist and cranio-sacral therapist, Paula specialized in family systems, adolescence, and trauma recovery. She designed and executed program content for an adolescent day treatment center, worked in supervisory capacities inpatient and outpatient psychiatric settings, and has worked extensively with families with sexual abuse dynamics. Paula is the author of Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children®, a child sexual abuse prevention Docutraining® that uses consciousness training to effect behavior change. As a consciousness trainer with Phoenix Possibilities, Paula teaches the Cliff Jumping® Program and other leadership development programs for individuals, couples, and organizational groups. As a social change agent, she weaves her knowledge of the Enneagram, Spiral Dynamics and the Cliff Jumping Program to move communities to action. She is also a Oneness Blessing Giver through Oneness University in Chennai, India. Paula inspires vitality, spiritual connection, integrity and personal fulfillment.




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