The holiday season brings gatherings with lots of family you may not see the rest of the year. Relatives will delight over how your kids have grown, and want lots of hugs and kisses from the little ones. But how do you handle things if your little one doesn’t feel so festive about those hugs and kisses?
Kathy Miller, MA LCPC, is the president of Oasis Mental Health and private therapist in Annapolis. She has some advice on how you and your child can set up boundaries without alienating family members during holiday dinners.
What should a parent do if a child feels uncomfortable hugging or is reluctant about giving a hug or kiss to relatives?
In my experience, it makes a lot of sense to give children and adolescents a feeling of control over their bodies. That includes setting limits with affection, touching, etc. We need to respect the child if they say they do not want to kiss or hug someone. If we override their sense of what they are comfortable with regarding a family friend or relative, it can be confusing when someone you would not want hugging or kissing your child is encouraging them to do just that. No means no.
At what age do you allow your child to set up boundaries and what is the best way to do so?
We start with children from a very young age teaching them about privacy and “private parts.” As a result, we can build on that by asking them to tell us if they are uncomfortable with a touch. We explain to them they can be touched by mom or dad for a bath, etc; and by the doctor with mom or dad in the room. Other than that, it is not necessary for touch to happen unless the child is comfortable with the physical attention from a friend or family member.
Do you handle it differently if it is a specific relative or friend verses everyone?
In general, I don’t think children differentiate between discomfort with a friend or family member giving them unwanted physical touch, or someone outside the family. Therefore, we don’t push unwanted contact with any person. We can give the child an option to do a fist-bump or high-five instead if they prefer. That allows the child the option of deciding what is best for him or her.
What is the best way to explain allowing your child to have boundaries to family members who may find it disrespectful, rude, or just not understand?
One option to explain the child having boundaries around touch is to remind family and friends that, as parents, it is safety first. The child is learning to be able to say they are uncomfortable and have people honor that boundary. I would then suggest the uncle, family friend ask if the child if he/she would like to fist-bump or do a high-five. Again, if the child doesn’t want to do that either, then let it go.