Some families are very huggy and affectionate; others less so. But even less cuddly families tend to hug and kiss relatives when they arrive for a visit. Some kids are happy to give Grandpa or Aunt Suzy a hug—but others howl. What’s a parent to do?
At one end of the continuum is letting the child decide. If she doesn’t want to hug Aunt Suzy or even say Hi, she doesn’t have to. The risk with going too far in this direction is that your child doesn’t learn how to be polite—indulged too much, she may even become bratty. The other end of the continuum is simply insisting on hugs etc. and punishing your child if he doesn’t comply. The risk here is that he’ll learn to ignore what makes him uncomfortable and go along with what others want despite his misgivings—which makes him vulnerable to peer pressure and even abusive relationships. Clearly, the middle ground is the place to be.
There are two broad themes here: politeness and not hurting feelings, and respect for your child’s personal boundaries. Finding the right balance can be a challenge. It’s also an opportunity to talk about issues that will come up later in your child’s life.
Here are some variables to consider:
Your child’s age. Insisting that a two-year-old hug Aunt Suzy when she doesn’t want to just sets up a miserable power struggle. But with a six-year-old, you can have a conversation.
Your child’s style. Some kids simply aren’t affectionate with anyone, even you. Some have sensory integration disorders, which can make physical contact overwhelming and distressing. Others are simply shy or slow to warm up.
How well your child knows the relative. If your child sees Uncle Joe once a year, that’s different from someone he knows well. We warn kids about strangers; you know Joe, but he still may feel like a stranger to your child.
If your kid has been uncomfortable in the past about hugging relatives, talk to her before the next visit.
Explain social norms. “We always greet people when we see them, sometimes with words, or a handshake or a hug or kiss. That’s the polite thing to do; it makes the other person feel like she matters. As much as possible, we want to not hurt people’s feelings.”
Ask what your child dislikes. Is he uncomfortable hugging everybody? Does he actually dislike Aunt Suzy for some reason? Does Aunt Suzy’s perfume bother him, or Grandpa’s scratchy face? Is Grandma so enthusiastic in her hugging that it’s overwhelming? Does she want to hug him the minute she walks in the door, when he hasn’t had a chance to warm up? What is it that bothers him?
Explain Aunt Suzy’s perspective. “She loves you and she’s happy to see you. Hugs and kisses are ways we show people we love them. I know she’d like it if you can show her you love her, too.”
Discuss compromises. Refusing to acknowledge a guest is rude. How can she make friendly contact in a way that feels right to her? Is she okay with a hug but not a kiss, or vice versa? How about blowing a kiss? high-fiving? a handshake?
Talk about public versus private touch. A hug from Uncle Joe in front of everyone in the living room is one thing. A hug that makes your son uncomfortable when no one is around is more concerning—especially if there’s any pressure to keep it secret. You don’t want to breed fear, but you do want your child to trust his internal voice when it says No. “When something really feels wrong to you, it’s important to listen to that. In fact, please come tell me if you’re uncomfortable and the other person pressures you anyway—no matter who the other person is. But most of the time there’s nothing to be worried about, especially if lots of people are around.”
During the visit, model polite communication about limits and preferences. With your child present, smile warmly and say to Aunt Suzy, “Sarah’s happy to see you, but she’s feeling shy/ she’s not into hugs. How about a high-five?”
Most adults will be fine with that. If your relative persists, talk with her privately. “I wish Sarah were more comfortable with kissing relatives, but she just isn’t. I don’t want to push her on it, because I think it’s important for kids to learn that they can say No to things that don’t feel right to them. We’re trying to prepare her for resisting peer pressure as she gets older. I hope you can understand.”
Revisit the conversation as your child gets older. “When you were 5, you didn’t like Grandma to hug you. Now that you’re 8, how do you feel about it? She’d really like it if you hug her when she visits. Is that still super-uncomfortable, or do you think you’re up for it now?”
I suppose this may seem like a whole lot of talk about a small topic. But these are exactly the kinds of experiences that shape kids’ eventual sex lives, especially how they respond to peer pressure during the teen years. Even fairly young children can start to learn about the importance of balancing polite behavior with the limits that feel right to them.