Hugs are Not for Everyone

We’ve probably all witnessed this scene play out time and time again, often in movies, commercials, comic strips, and even in real-life instances: a reluctant, hesitant, and sometimes even resistant child is encouraged and yes, sometimes even forced into a hug or kiss from an adult.  “Oh, go ahead, give your Great Aunt Ethel a hug!”, or, “You can have your dessert as soon as you come over here and give me a smooch on the cheek”.  While we are meant to laugh at this interaction in the movies, when the little boy pulls away from Great Aunt Ethel with tousled hair and lipstick marks on his cheeks, we should really consider the implications of what is actually playing out in this scenario.  Forcing adolescents into physical contact with well-meaning adults, including family members, sends the damaging message to our children that they are not in control of their own bodies.  

Most parents teach their children from a young age about “stranger danger” and that it is never okay, under any circumstances, for someone to touch their bodies without their permission.  However, we, as parents, create a confusing gray area for them when we coax them into physical contact with someone or fail to be the voice of “no” for our children when they are clearly uncomfortable giving or receiving a hug or kiss from someone in our presence.  Our children look to us for support and reassurance when they are afraid and uncertain, and it is our responsibility to teach them to listen to their instincts and know that they always have the option to avoid physical contact situations that make them uncomfortable.  

It’s not always easy to navigate these interactions, and it is sometimes difficult for others to understand the reasoning behind enforcing these boundaries for your child.  Some would even say that a child declining a hug is downright rude.  And while yes, it is important for children to learn to exercise good manners and meaningfully acknowledge someone who would like to greet them, say goodbye, or engage in conversation, the bottom line is that it is not you or your child’s responsibility to validate that person at the expense of a child’s ownership of their body.  You may need to help your hesitant child work through these interactions by vocalizing for them, “We are trying to teach Sarah that it’s okay to say no to a hug”, or simply, “Charlie is not a hugger”.  It could be helpful to have a conversation with your child in advance of a gathering and ask them what their level of comfort is with hugging relatives or friends.  They may tell you that a hug is just fine, or that they’d prefer a high-five or fist bump, or maybe nothing at all, and the important take-away is that that’s ok.  While you should be prepared to immediately speak up for your child when needed, it is also vital that you help them understand how to use their voice in these situations as well.  This could be done by role-playing with your child to help them practice a polite way to turn down a hug or kiss.  

While hugging is the most common encounter children face, the same boundaries should hold true for any physical contact to include kissing, tickling, and lap-sitting.  Allowing our young children to say “no” to physical contact with others and backing them up with our support gives them valuable practice and confidence for navigating physical encounters later in life when the only voice they’ll have is their own. 

We can teach our children that when it comes to hugs, it’s okay not to give them, and equally important, remind adults that it’s okay not to get them.  When we give a reluctant child the space and time they need to become comfortable giving or receiving a big embrace, we might one day be pleasantly surprised. There is nothing more special than a well-earned hug given by a child of their own free will.

Check out the following link for books about body autonomy to read along with your children, or look for my family’s favorite, “No More Kisses for Bernard” by Niki Daly

Claire Mullen

Child Advocacy Center


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