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Why Your Child Should Never Be Forced to Hug a Relative

As we head into the vacation season and into visits with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, there's one awkward situation that will arise in many families 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 show them affection.

To spare a relative's feelings, many of us will urge a small child to endure or even return this unwanted physical contact. But should we? What messages are we sending to our kids about their body boundaries when we do this?

How to Avoid Teaching the Wrong Lessons

A CNN article entitled I Don't Own My Child's Body that explores these questions is the subject of lively discussion here. Katia Hetter, its author, asserts that, "Forcing children to touch people when they don't want to leaves them vulnerable to sexual abusers, most of whom are people known to the children they abuse."

Assuming that giving Grandma a kiss on the cheek could have anything at all to do with the sexual abuse of a child might seem crazy at first blush, but Nichole M. feels Hetter's connection makes perfect sense. "You're violating their comfort zone and the kids may learn to accept anyone into those uncomfortable spaces." Lisa E. also agrees, and shares how she's teaching her own son about respecting his body and his own physical space:

"The boundary we're teaching our child is to listen to his own 'gut feeling.' He tells us whenever he feels uncomfortable around someone (usually whispering so he doesn't hurt feelings). He never has to touch or be touched if he feels uncomfortable — family or otherwise. I will never force him to kiss anyone — even if a great aunt is visiting who may get her feelings hurt. Hugs and kisses are his to give and are not compulsory."

Hetter also reminds us that forcing our kids to be affectionate when they don't want to can impact their sexual relationships as teens, because it "teaches them to use their body to please you or someone else in authority or, really, anyone."

"Affection should never be forced."

In addition to preventing abuse, many moms feel it's important to try to understand how your child feels when a relative demands physical affection. Jenni D. references her own memories from childhood as a guideline in her parenting: "As a kid, I didn't like to be hugged or kissed much except by my mom, and hated when my grandma would force me to kiss her goodbye. As an adult, I love giving kisses and snuggles to my kids, but if they would ever seem like they didn't want me to hug or kiss them I would respect that."

As Jenni D.'s comment points out, forced affection between a parent and child is concerning as well. Stacey's kids became uncomfortable when her husband, who is their stepfather, became too demanding of hugs and kisses. In situations like this, members urge Stacey to have her husband back down. Lorena M. explains that "kisses and hugs should come out because one feels like giving them and not because they're pressured." A reader who goes by "Dove" is even more emphatic: "Affection should never be forced."

How to Head Off a Relative's Hurt Feelings

Toddlers often test our patience by refusing to do things that we actually do have to find a way to make them do, such as eating, bathing, and behaving well. However, refusing affection should not be equated with bad manners or bad behavior. Hetter asserts that 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."

A good first step may be to explain your policy to relatives. Adults, even close relatives, should be able to respect your decision. Hetter found that while it can be more work, it can also lead them to truly appreciate the affection they do get from your child. "I explain to relatives who want to know why we're letting her decide who she touches, and when she does hug them, the joy is palpable — not from obligation or a direct order from Mom," she says.

Hetter also offers 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, as Angie S.'s story shows: "You could do what my boyfriend and our son do, they have a special hand shake. He will even stay awake, and when he hears his dad come home from work he'll come out just to do their shake."

How do you and your child handle social situations?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.

Image Source: Flickr user thedianna
CoMMember13612535770269 CoMMember13612535770269 2 years

I remember this woman named Joan, we on occasion had to give her a hug and kiss and I was terrified of her! I think she was married to my uncle's brother. I have seen her as an adult now and confessed how terrified I used to be of her and she laughed and said don't feel bad, my kids were too! I was glad we were able to laugh about it and get past that. I think kids should be able to express affection on their own terms, not be forced into it. It can cause fear and resentment toward the affection seeker.

KellyFerreira KellyFerreira 2 years

I do not agree with those who are saying it is disrespectful not to hug..There are many other ways to show respect to family members. Please, thank you etc all show respect, saying hello and goodbye even with a hi five is all respect. If your child is not communicating with them at all, not saying Bye etc, that is then disrespectful..As many people have pointed out, abuse usually happens with people closest to the person. Not saying I don't trust certain people, but sometimes you never know. A child needs to learn their own boundaries, and they can not learn that all important lesson if they are being forced to do something. I was forced to hug certain family members when I was little, and like someone else stated, I am not all that comfortable giving hugs at family gathering's even in my 40's..

suziechamberlain suziechamberlain 2 years

There was a thing on this when my eldest was a baby and he's 16....Every Child Matters.....they're adults in children's bodies these days...wish I had my teenagers head at such a young age...My oh my theyve got there head screwed on xxx

KellyFerreira KellyFerreira 2 years

I have never and would never force my kids to give hug's or kisses. Most of the time my kids give/gave a high five. My oldest until he was about 7 always gave high fives, and we never forced him to do anything else, around age of 7 he just started giving hug's on his own, and it was a nice surprise to his grandparents on both sides (one side had a really hard time not being able to give him hugs when he was little, they always tried to force it). My youngest is 5 and still will not let anyone hug him, but does the high five thing. Both my boy's are very affectionate with their dad and I, and we get lot's of cuddles..They just prefer other's not to touch them. The whole giving a kiss I don't even encourage at all, to me that is not for grandparents/aunt's/cousin's etc..that is reserved for a kiss from mom and dad at bedtime, and then reserved for when they grow up and have a girlfriend etc..

ElizabethEllis62221 ElizabethEllis62221 2 years

I do agree with this. Children should absolutely be taught respect, but why should that mean forcing intimate physical contact on them that they don't want? We don't do this to adults. I am very strict with my daughter when it comes to politely saying hello and goodbye and I might encourage her to give a hug, but I would never force her. Adults should be mature enough to deal with this. When I was a child, I went to my cousin's house and he picked me up to hug me. I squirmed to get away from him and was scolded by my aunt and my mom. What they didn't know was that days before, he had tried to molest me and forced my head under a blanket to see his erect penis. Now, I am by no means trying to say that every time your child doesn't want to hug someone you should suspect them of molestation. But children should be allowed to feel that they have domain over their own bodies. We live in a complex world, and teaching respect to Grandma while allowing personal space is tough, but parenting is tough. Most of us really are trying to do what's best for our children.

LifeDontWasteIt LifeDontWasteIt 2 years

While I agree with the protecting your kids idea - strongly at that, I fear we always end up going too far the opposite extreme. Affection does have to be forced sometimes... ask any couple who is past the infatuation stage. If you're not a hugger or hand-holder... and your other half needs that, guess what? You need to force that affectionate side of yourself - essentially their need is forcing it, and that's okay too. Let's be careful to also not teach them that only their feelings matter while we protect them.

torz torz 3 years

Crystal, drawing such a black and white dichotomy in regards to affectionate physical contact is what's damaging here, not the idea that even the slightest level of unwanted contact is going to ruin your child.

You need to teach your children the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching, rather than, like many commentators here have noted, raising your kids to be robots, incapable of displaying any empathetic emotion to close relatives.

Me personally, growing up, I didn't always feel like hugging my relatives, but I did, because it was a sign that I cared about them and appreciated them as family. Now as a young adult, I am glad I learned that lesson early in life.

Jennifer57836 Jennifer57836 3 years

Depends on where you are from and your society and backgroud. In Spain and other countries it is the standard "norm" to greet pretty much everybody with two kisses, one on each cheek. I think we are making too big of a deal about something. If you want to focus on sexual abuse, just teach your children about the "real" boundaries that are related to that kind of abuse. Not kisses on the cheek or hugs. This is just "crazy"!

JulieBensonGrant JulieBensonGrant 3 years

I am having mixed reactions not only to the article but to many of the comments as well! On one hand, I come from a family of very affectionate people and my son and I hug often as well as kiss (on the lips)... and he is now 19. He tells me that he loves me every single day... many times a day.

So, I cannot comment on the abuse or molestation as I never experienced this, but do feel that this must be reactionary to that abuse. If I had been abused, I'd be sure to protect my own (and maybe be overprotective), but I don't think that the advice would apply to the majority of children and their parents.

I would hate to see affection between parents/grandparents and children end because a minority of children were victims of child abuse.

BarbaraTurner82515 BarbaraTurner82515 3 years

Uh, the word is not suspensions it's suspicious ----
sus·pi·cious /səˈspɪʃəs/ Show Spelled [suh-spish-uhs] Show IPA
1. tending to cause or excite suspicion; questionable: suspicious behavior.
2. inclined to suspect, especially inclined to suspect evil; distrustful: a suspicious tyrant.
3. full of or feeling suspicion.
4. expressing or indicating suspicion: a suspicious glance.

BarbaraTurner82515 BarbaraTurner82515 3 years

Showing respect DOES NOT INCLUDE FORCED HUGS OR KISSES to family members. Yes ma'am and No ma'am yessir nosir are signs of respect! How dare you?! Glad you're not in my family!

BarbaraTurner82515 BarbaraTurner82515 3 years

I grew up in the South of Atlanta GA and our family was ALL a huggy kissy bunch! I love hugs! I hug my adult friends now! But I have to agree that some relatives you just don't want to hug or smooch! I don't mind a kiss or side hug but like I stated above, my dear Grandmother always kissed us grandkids all 5 of us on the mouth! Just a peck. I didn't like it and neither did they.

BarbaraTurner82515 BarbaraTurner82515 3 years

You got all that right! Amen! My maternal Grandmother, God rest her soul, was all about "Give Granmama a kiss" and it had to be right on the mouth! YECH! That was the only thing I didn't like! Otherwise she was the most wonderful Grandmother you could imagine, fun, taught me to sew, took me with her on her real estate calls and open houses with her business partner, an AWESOME Sunday School teacher and so much more on her and Granddaddy's vacations! Wonderful wonderful times! I finally asked her why and she just said "but I love you!" I asked her for a simple kiss on the cheek and that took care of it! She didn't get mad or hurt! She was awesome! Just really didn't think anything about it but didn't mind after I mentioned it. LOL

BarbaraTurner82515 BarbaraTurner82515 3 years

God Almighty! I'm sooooo glad you are NOT in my family around my kids and grandchildren! Your drama would drive me to want to bodily harm to you!

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