We Don’t Force Our Children to Hug Other Adults (Not even Grandma!)
As toddlers and preschoolers my boys often refused to hug relatives they rarely saw. Sometimes our less mature family members acted offended when the boys refused hugs and kisses. Family visits went from zero to awkward pretty fast in those situations.
Still, we never insisted our children show affection toward anyone for whom they didn’t feel natural affection. Fortunately, my boys have two understanding grandmothers who’ve never forced affection.
Instead, we devised a method of engagement to use with persistent relatives that protected them from hurt feelings.
Hugs Were Not Optional When I Was a Child
As a child, I had no choice but to accept hugs from adult friends and relatives. I disliked hugging most adults, but I complied to avoid physical punishment for disobedience or “rudeness”.
Of course, most parents want to teach their children to be polite and loving. No one wants their children to offend others. We know a request for affection from a loving family member shows how much they care about our child.
I felt that way, too, as a new parent. But, the negative effects of forced affection in my own childhood nagged at me. I didn’t want to pass that on to my children.
See, my learned dutifulness during childhood toward adults who requested affection put me in a scary situation as a teenager. A trusted father-figure, who had begun the forced affection with brief hugs, attempted to molest me.
He groomed me for a couple of years before he made his big move. See, my “spidey-senses” said something was wrong when I met him. I pushed my anxieties aside for the sake of politeness. He blindsided me because I thought that a kind, gentle, affectionate adult would never try to hurt me.
At least that’s what I’d been led to believe as a child. I was promised by adults that they ‘wouldn’t bite me’ if I’d share a hug or kiss with them.
Children Have Internal Senses That Adults Have Learned to Ignored
Children have natural danger defenses. Staying close to a few trusted care-givers and not getting too close to other, less-emotionally-close adults is a survival mechanism. It’s simply smart and intuitive.
Maybe your child senses something about Aunt Sally or Next-Door-Neighbor Joe that you’re missing for the sake of politeness. Encourage your children’s natural instincts to be selective with their affections.
If an adult is offended by your child’s lack of affection, don’t allow that adult to make it your problem. Explain your stance and then drop it.
What Children Can Do Instead of Hugging or Kissing Adult Family Members
Your children need to know that they have a right to refuse affection or physical touch. Back them up on this. You might have to be firm with other adults, but you don’t have to be rude.
Although my boys are old enough now to speak for themselves, I occasionally step in if I’m needed. We have one adult female relative who gives big, relentless, extended, body-crushing hugs. These hugs are unnecessary and sometimes painful. She doesn’t easily take no for an answer.
I’ve stepped in before to rescue my children from her hugs. I knew we had to find a way to deal with her obliviousness to boundaries.
Hug, Handshake, or High Five
The best way to handle it when your child refuses affection from an adult is to give them choices.
Before visiting relatives or other close adults, ask your kiddos if they prefer a hug, a handshake, or a high-five today. This encourages warm interaction between child and adult, but allows the child to control the level of intimacy of the interaction.
This Stage is Short but the Life Lessons Last Forever
Toddlers who sometimes refuse to show affection usually don’t continue to refuse affection forever. However, by allowing your kids to set their own boundaries for affection you set them up with healthy, protective boundaries for life.
These days my boys freely give affection to family members. They understand that it’s safe and not a big deal. They know that they’re are free to give or refuse affection as they choose and have given their share of polite hugs. Not because they were forced, but because they see value in being polite to safe and trusted loved ones.
If your child is not affectionate toward even his or her closest few caregivers, talk with your holistic health care practitioner or pediatrician.
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