How the elbow rule helped my child learn about personal space

By Amanda Morin

My story

I’m the mother of three kids. My middle child is coming up on his 13th birthday. Although he likes to be social, he often stands too close to other people, which can make them feel uncomfortable.

What I was doing

At first, we thought the reason he stood so close was because he didn’t understand how to act in social situations. So my husband and I tried to teach him the social rule about personal space.

We tried explaining it to him:

“Personal space is the area close to somebody’s body. People get uncomfortable when you’re in their personal space.”

We tried making analogies:

“Think of it like a ‘personal bubble’ that a person is standing inside.”

We tried sounding annoyed: (Not hard when you are a bit annoyed.)

“You just elbowed me in the stomach when you turned around. How is that not too close?”

But none of it worked. He kept on standing very close to others.

What I wish I’d known sooner

To be honest, having someone in my personal space is a big pet peeve of mine. I don’t like it. It makes me irritable.

I need more personal space than most people do. I think it’s due to on my part. Sensory issues that my son shares. He can be sensitive to loud noises or the way things feel.

Then I realized my son’s sensory processing issues might be affecting his body awareness. That’s when it clicked: He did understand the social rule about personal space. But he couldn’t always tell where his body was in relation to other people!

The solution? Coming up with a way to help him know when to give more space. So, we taught him the “elbow” or “chicken wing” rule:

“If your elbow touches someone when you put your arms out like chicken wings, then you’re standing too close to them.”

This simple rule worked much better than any explanation. It also helped him improve his body awareness.

At first, he looked a little goofy walking around with chicken wings. Over time, though, he refined his technique. Now it looks more as if he’s stretching than trying to fly.

Sometimes I even hear him playing “mother hen” to his little brother, saying, “You’re too close to me — use the ‘chicken wing’ rule.”

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.