Why we need to stop forcing our children to hug

It’s the holiday season and that means lots of visits with friends and family. This can also lead to an awkward situation: relatives (ahem, grandparents!) and others who expect automatic hugs and kisses from children — even when some kids tend to shy away from   overt displays of affection.

There are many people in our children’s lives who want to show their love with hugs and kisses. I remember my parents-in-law would expect “instant affection” from our toddlers when we visited them. However, because they lived far away, my kids didn’t have regular contact with their grandparents; they may have even seemed like strangers at times.

While my son would readily give a hug or kiss to anyone, my daughter had a different temperament. She wasn’t having any of it. My husband and I would find ourselves awkwardly trying to rationalize why she was reluctant to hug them. “She sometimes takes a while to warm up,” I would find myself explaining to my in-laws. I didn’t want them to feel rejected and, ultimately, I wanted them to see my daughter as the warm, cuddly toddler that she was. But let’s face it: kids are different. Some are quick to engage, while others take time to adjust to new settings and new faces.

We should never force our children to hug or kiss anyone. Children need to understand from a young age that they are the owners of their bodies. One way we can empower our kids is by teaching them that they get to choose whom they hug. Allowing our children to set their own boundaries in terms of physical affection also helps protect them from potentially becoming victims of sexual abuse. We’re instilling the “go with your gut” and “own your body” messages at an early age.

Somewhere along the way, not hugging or kissing a relative has become the same as having bad manners or being rude. This isn’t the case. Children can still show manners, be respectful and greet relatives without having their personal space invaded. Here are some strategies to help:

  • Practise other options: Before family get togethers, try out alternate responses to hugging and kissing with your child. Giving high-fives, a handshake, a smile, a wave or saying ‘hello’ are all good options.
  • Prepare family and friends: Before family events, talk with your relatives and explain that your child is not always up for hugs or kisses – they shouldn’t take it personally. Explain that kids have different temperaments.
  • Help to build that relationship: For young children, it’s hard to remember relatives when they don’t see them often. Try keeping photos of close relatives to show your child regularly. That way when they do visit, your child is more familiar with their face. 

Every parent wants a child who is confident and expresses emotions for close relatives and friends. But we don’t get to choose our children’s temperaments and personalities. Children sometimes need time to warm up to people and once they do, affection often comes naturally.

As a parent, listen to your child’s feelings, thoughts and concerns. If they say they feel uncomfortable with hugs and kisses, allow them the option of trying out different kinds of greetings. Giving your children respectful options allows them to express themselves in their unique way and sends a powerful message that they are truly the owners of their bodies.

How do you handle relatives who expect hugs from your children? We would love to hear from you!

For parenting information or to speak with a Public Health Nurse (every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) simply dial 311 or 905-825-6000.

About Maureen Harris, RN

I have been working as a Public Health Nurse for many years. I enjoy working with families and supporting them along their parenting journey. I’m passionate about promoting a healthy active lifestyle for families. When not working, you can often find me hiking the beautiful trails in Halton Hills with my family.
This entry was posted in Grandparents, Parenting, Safety, Toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why we need to stop forcing our children to hug

  1. D Brown says:

    This is a great and very important post. We have chosen to asking our son, “How would you like to say (good-bye/hello/etc). to (Nanny/Grandpa/Relative/Family Friend)?”

    • Maureen Harris, RN says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you like it. You use a great strategy with your son. Thanks for sharing!

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