Why Your Child Never HAS to Hug Grandma
The holidays are often filled with visits from relatives your family doesn’t see on a regular basis. For some of us, these visits are wonderful opportunities to create lasting memories.
Others see these visits as obligations we simply tolerate and try to get through.
Whatever the relationship is between you and your extended family, one thing we rarely think about is how these visits effect our kids.
When grandma walks through the door, she may expect a hug. But your child may not even be sure who this person is.
And we don’t hug strangers, right?
Then Aunt Sally’s really cool gift to your child certainly deserves a kiss of appreciation, doesn’t it?
And when your child shies away from the hug or refuses the kiss, we often feel embarrassment at our child being “rude” or “unappreciative.”
But we shouldn’t, and in fact, we should be actively protecting our child’s right to choose when and how she shows affection to us, and to everyone else she encounters, even if it happens to be your favorite relative.
The Danger of Forcing Affection
Your first reaction may be that expecting your child to make an occasional show of affection towards a trusted relative is harmless, and in fact teaches good manners and helps establish loving relationships.
But stop and think for a moment about the message it sends to your child.
When an adult tells you that you have to give a hug or kiss, you have to do it. Even if you don’t want to do it.
And that’s a dangerous message to instill in our children, who don’t have the capacity to always understand good touch versus bad touch, and when it’s okay to just say “no” to what an adult or other person of authority is asking of you.
Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, a developmental psychologist with the Girl Scouts, puts it like this:
“The lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime, and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older. Plus, sadly, we know that some adults prey on children, and teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, know when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help.”
Dr. Jack Levine, an executive committee member on developmental and behavior pediatrics at the American Academy of Pediatrics, agrees, noting that forced affection takes from the child his say in the decision on who to show his affection to. This leads to the child believing his feelings and thoughts on the issue don’t really matter.
Dr. Levine agrees that the effect can last a lifetime:
“They feel that external forces are more or equally as important as their own feelings and who they should be kissing and hugging, and then later on in life, who they should be intimate with.”
Another consideration is how forced affection may influence your child’s trust in you if she is ever touched in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable.
It’s certainly not something we want to ever imagine, but it’s an unfortunate reality. And if your child is made to feel uncomfortable by another’s touch, you don’t want her to hesitate to tell you, wrongly assuming that “Mommy thinks it’s okay for other adults to force a kiss or touch.”
How to Handle Those Awkward Situations
This is an issue a lot of people have never considered, so don’t expect grandma and Aunt Sally to embrace your child’s right to choose his comfort level of affection.
Some relatives can be downright pushy, especially if you have an overly affectionate family.
If you anticipate this may be an issue, talk to your child beforehand about her right to do what’s comfortable for her.
To keep your child from coming across as rude or uncaring, she may want to make something for certain relatives beforehand, or simply practice expressing gratitude and affection with words so they’ll come more naturally when the situation arises.
If you see your child being put in an uncomfortable situation, whether you’ve talked about it beforehand or not, step in and support him with a, “Oh you don’t feel like giving hugs right now? That’s okay.”
Hopefully this will be a subtle yet effective message to the offending party. If they persist, kindly explain we always choose when and how to show affection in our family because it empowers the kids to make those choices for themselves in the future.
The bottom line is, protecting your kids here is more important than your extended family’s hurt feelings.
Such feelings should be healed by your child’s other kind gestures and words. If not, what can you do?
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