“I Don't Like It When Adults Force Me to Give a Hug or Kiss”
When relatives or other adults meet your adorable children, they may ask them for a hug or kiss. What if your kids display discomfort or reluctance at this? How can parents respond?
Most infants have no fear of strangers from birth up until around 6 months of age. However, from around 7 months onwards, they may display anxiety from being apart from their parents as well as a healthy distress toward strangers.
Your child may not know how to articulate discomfort in their early years, but if they show signs of persistent crying or resistance against being held or kissed by other people, gently lead your child back to you and assure them that it is okay if they do not wish to be hugged or kissed.
Doing so can begin to lay the groundwork for teaching your kids the importance of body safety, autonomy, consent, and safe physical boundaries. An essential message is that affection should not be forced, but freely given and received.
Between the ages of 4 to 9, it would be important to already have addressed with your children what is “good touch” and what is “bad touch”, as well as which areas of your child’s body is considered private. A simple way to talk about this is to use the “swimsuit rule”: any place covered by a swimming suit is considered private, and should not be touched by any other person, except for Mummy and Daddy if the need arises.
Your kids would be able to express discomfort about physical affection from others more clearly, either through their words or actions. When this happens, assure your child that it is okay that they do not want to be hugged or kissed with a comment like, “It’s okay if you don’t want to.” This helps him or her to understand that their personal comfort about physical touch is important and needs to be respected.
It also allows your children to know that as their parents, you are there to protect and stand up for them if they face an uncomfortable situation. If we force our kids to engage in physical affection when they do not want to, they may be confused about what to do when others touch them in ways they are not comfortable with.
You may wish to suggest alternative ways your child can connect with others, say, by giving a high-five, handshake, fist-bump, or a flying kiss instead. Or you may want to explain to them that your kid needs time to warm up to them.
If your child is not comfortable with the hugs or kisses he or she received, but seems to struggle with verbalising that, teach him or her how to say no politely. For example, “I noticed when that auntie hugged you earlier, you didn’t look very comfortable. The next time you don’t want to be hugged, you can just shake your head and say nicely, ‘I don’t want to be hugged.’” This is a step toward helping your child know how to establish and communicate their physical boundaries with others.
This conversation can happen even earlier, if the need arises: should the child persist in not wanting a particular person or a few people to touch him or her, you may wish to chat with your child to find out if there is something else about that person that makes him or her feel uncomfortable.
Assure them that if anyone has initiated inappropriate touch, they must let you know immediately. Explain that no matter what has happened, you will not respond in anger or disappointment to them. Rather, you will listen calmly to whatever they have to say.
At this age, you can take a step back from playing a facilitative role and teach them how to take ownership over expressing their personal comfort and boundaries when it comes to physical touch. If they need some guidance, rehearse together with them ways of saying something like, “I don’t want to be hugged (or kissed). Can I give you a high-five or handshake instead?”
And just as we want our kids to understand the importance of respect for their personal comfort, consent, and boundaries, we need to teach how to respect others in the same manner as well.
You may wish to also begin conversations about other types of boundaries that are important to establish: emotional, relational, and media boundaries, for example. What are your family’s values regarding these areas? Having ongoing chats about your child’s growth in these aspects of their lives can go a long way toward developing them to be secure individuals who are able to understand and maintain healthy boundaries.