As a parent, when it comes to family gatherings that include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, there’s one awkward situation that will arise that most parents will be unprepared to deal with:
Relatives who expect hugs and kisses from little ones, even when those little ones don’t want to give them – the child simply doesn’t want to show them affection.
To spare a relative’s feelings, I’ve seen parents urge their children to endure or even return this unwanted physical contact just to make that relative happy.
As a survivor of childhood rape, I don’t feel that we should do this. Think about it, what messages does this send to our kids? Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids to have boundaries when it comes to their own personal space and their own body?
Forcing children to touch people when they don’t want to leaves them vulnerable to sexual abusers, most of whom are people the children know and love.
It might seem crazy to think that giving Grandma a kiss on the cheek could have anything at all to do with the sexual abuse of a child but by forcing a child to give Grandma that kiss when they truly don’t want to, you’re violating their comfort zone. It’s teaching the child to accept anyone into their uncomfortable spaces and that leaves them weak and assailable to any and all perpetrators that may be around them.
We have to teach our children about respecting their own bodies and their own physical space, to listen to their own ‘gut feeling.’
We need to teach our children to tell us when they feel uncomfortable around someone, in a polite way, if in the persons presence, and we need to teach them that they never have to touch or be touched if they feel uncomfortable — family or otherwise. We should never force them to kiss anyone — even if a great-grandmother, who is visiting, gets her feelings hurt. Hugs and kisses are the child’s to give and are not compulsory and should not be forced.
Forcing our kids to be affectionate when they don’t want to send the wrong message, it impacts them greatly on an emotional level. It teaches them to use their body, to please you or someone else in authority or anyone for that matter, in any way.
Affection should never be forced
In addition to preventing abuse, it’s important to try to understand how your child feels when a relative demands physical affection. My father’s oldest son, Paulie, started his sexual assaults on me when I was just two years. I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell an adult at that time but I told my mother at the age of four. She didn’t put a stop to the abuse, she shamed me and for years after that she forced me to hug and kiss this vile pervert every time he came around or we went to visit him.
Kissing and hugging someone is not something I ever forced my own children to do when they were little. I loved giving and receiving their kisses and snuggles and today I love it with my grandchildren, but if they don’t want to hug or kiss me, I respect that, no matter the age.
Forced affection between a parent and child is concerning as well. We have too many cases of parents, step parents, parental figures, such as uncles, coaches or friends of the family, demanding kisses and hugs. My Uncle Bill was one of them and it made me very uncomfortable. I was already being abused by my father’s oldest son and my mother knew this but she still insisted I hug and kiss my Uncle Bill when we went to visit him and she made me feel bad if I didn’t want to do it.
At the tender age of ten my Uncle Bill also started sexually assaulting me. I didn’t tell my mother because she’d already shamed me enough and her insistence that I hug and kiss others left me even more defenseless – powerless to protect my own being, my own space, powerless because I hadn’t been taught to have boundaries.
Powerless as a child, powerless as a teenager and powerless as a young adult until I learned to set boundaries of my own.
Seriously, we need to pay close attention to this in our families because kisses and hugs should come out only when a child feels like giving them and not because they’re being pressured. Affection should never be forced.
How to Head Off a Relative’s Hurt Feelings
Toddlers often test our patience by refusing to do what we are asking of them and we have to find ways to get them to do things, such as eating, bathing, and behaving well. However, refusing affection should not be equated with bad manners or bad behavior. Children can (and should) be polite and respectful while still maintaining their own personal boundaries. Manners, treating people with respect and care, is different than demanding physical displays of affection.
If a person says that their feelings are hurt simply explain your position to them. Adults, even close relatives, should respect your decision and the boundaries you are teaching your child to have for themselves.
I did this with my own family, including my father and step mother when my children were young. My father was very hurt that I told my daughter, Katelyn, that she didn’t have to kiss him if she didn’t want to but in the end my father understood and appreciated the affection he did get from her.
I didn’t so much push the issue but simply explained to friends and relatives, who wanted to know, why I was letting my child decide who she touched. Then when my daughter did give them hugs and kisses, they understood it was genuine, not done out of obligation or a direct order from Mom and Dad.
When meeting new relatives, you can also offer suggestions for greetings that are less intimate, and that are perfect for a child in the early stages of getting to know a new family member. Instead of kisses and hugs, encourage a handshake or a high-five. When kids are really little and shy, parents can start to offer them choices for treating people with respect and care. Even shy kids can shake somebody’s hand or wave or do something to communicate respect and care. Far from disappointing, these alternatives can actually strengthen a relative’s relationship with your young child.