Child Therapists Are Begging You to Stop Telling Your Kids to Do This

Stop Telling Your Kid to Hug People - An older white woman smiles while hugging a young white boy. The boy faces away from the camera and seems a bit hesitant. There're two other people about to embrace behind them.
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Raise your hand if any of these scenarios sound familiar. After months of being apart, grandma finally gets to see your kid again so, of course, as soon as she walks in the door, you urge your offspring to “give Nana a hug.” Or maybe your toddler and her bestie are playing together and you want to capture the moment for the ‘Gram. The only thing cuter than the two of them pretending to have a tea party would be if they gave each other a hug, so you gently coax them into an embrace. The kids comply without protesting, so what’s the big deal?

While it may seem relatively harmless (your child loves his grandma!), telling your kids to hug people is actually highly problematic. “Children should be allowed to develop body autonomy,” says Dr. Lea Lis, child psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk with Your Kids. In other words, kids should decide who gets to touch them and when, even at an early age. “This will give them a sense of being in charge and means later when they are teenagers they will be more in control of their own body and feel confident to say no to unwanted sexualized touch,” she adds.

And that’s not all: “Forcing your child to hug someone when they don’t want to can result in them feeling resentment and even add to their social anxiety in some cases,” cautions Dr. Siggie Cohen, a psychologist specializing in child development. “Feeling comfortable hugging someone is a personal choice that’s tied to your child’s innate personality, level of sociability and personal preference. All factors that develop and change over time as your child grows,” she adds.

But what about hurting grandma’s feelings when she’s standing there, arms outstretched? We get it, you don’t want to offend a relative. But it’s really important to let your child choose what to do here without apologizing or making excuses on their behalf (i.e., “Sally’s just very shy, she’ll warm up!”), lest your child feel as though you’re disappointed or embarrassed by their decision not to show physical affection. Instead, tell your child that it really is OK to just say hello, or try suggesting an alternative greeting (like a high five or a fist bump).

Of course, turning down an embrace doesn’t give your child license to be rude. Clinical psychologist Dr. Kate Nooner has another clever suggestion: “Instead of physical affection, you could have your child help put up guests’ coats or show guests where the snacks are set out. This way children learn about respect and hospitality while also learning that you support them when it comes to setting limits about physical interactions with others.”

That said, a little preparation goes a long way towards ensuring that this lesson in both limit-setting and social niceties goes smoothly. For this reason, Dr. Nooner recommends having a conversation with your child before friends and relatives descend. Such a conversation “will give your child plenty of time to ask questions and…let the ideas you share with them ‘marinate’ before they have to apply them,” says Dr. Nooner, adding that it’s also an opportunity to really drive home the fact that “they don’t have to offer explanations to people for not giving physical affection. And importantly, that you support them no matter what.”

If your kid sticks to the game plan but pushy Uncle Ron is still insisting on a hug, experts stress that it is completely appropriate for you as the parent to step in and say, “If Billy does not want to hug, that is OK.” Bottom line: This type of pressure from an adult can be a lot to handle solo, so be prepared to go to bat for your child even if you’ve talked the scenario out in advance. After all, by not pressuring your child, you’re giving them the space to decide when and how they want to show affection—and that’s a skill that will serve them well (and keep them safe) into the teenage years and beyond.

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