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Awkward! My Daughter Refuses to Hug Her Relatives
We're going to be visiting my extended family next month, and one of my children is very resistant to hugging her uncles. I don't want to hurt their feelings, but I don't want to force her. What should I do when my child makes it obvious that she doesn't want to hug a relative?
It's never OK to force a child to hug or kiss someone if they aren't comfortable -- even if that someone is a relative or close family friend. I know this can create some embarrassing moments, but it's vital that children know their boundaries are worthy of respect. Here's my advice:
1. If your daughter seems especially awkward around a particular relative, make sure her resistance isn't based on any inappropriate behavior that may have taken place between her and that relative. Gently ask if her uncles have ever done anything to make her ill at ease. "I notice you don't seem to want to hug Uncle Joe or Uncle Eddie. Have they ever done anything that made you feel yucky or uncomfortable, sweetheart?" Listen in a relaxed way, without making her feel she's being interrogated or about to get into trouble.
2. If you're sure nothing inappropriate is causing your child to resist hugging her uncles, ask her what she doesn't like about hugging them. Do they hug too tightly? Have bad breath or a scratchy beard? Listen to whatever reasons your child might share, and resist the urge to immediately tell your daughter why she should hug Uncle So and So. She needs to know from you that her sensibilities matter.
3. Talk with your brothers-in-law and explain that your daughter finally revealed her reasons for avoiding their affection: "Daisy told me she doesn't like long hugs" or "She confessed that she gets tickled by your beard and doesn't like that feeling." Suggest that she might be more likely to show her affectionate side with them if they try offering a shoulder squeeze, or tousling her hair instead of coming at her with arms stretched wide for a big bear hug.
The best way to empower children to not be a target for inappropriate or abusive behavior by an adult is to teach them to pay attention to their inner voice about what is and isn't OK, and to honor and respect their boundaries.
A wonderful book on this subject is Gavin de Becker's, "Protecting the Gift," in which he makes the case -- strongly -- for encouraging children to trust their instincts. If you know Uncle Joe is harmless but has a vice-grip of a hug, let him know that if he backs off, your child may greet him more warmly. But don't force your daughter to endure an unwelcome touch. It is never in her best interest to be told to ignore what feels OK to her, no matter how awkward it may make things.
Learning to establish boundaries for herself is a skill that will help your daughter throughout her life. Support her, and look for other ways to facilitate a warm greeting with her uncles -- perhaps a secret handshake or a funny dance -- that acknowledges their important role in her life, without compromising her sense of self.
Yours in parenting support,
AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.
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