It's baaaaaaack. Holiday season!
For many of us, this time of year means packing up the spouse, the kids, maybe even the dog and trekking off to visit… the relatives! Cross town or cross country, holiday season is often spent visiting family and friends. It can be a fun tradition or a dreaded obligation. (Or, maybe even a little of both.)
For me, growing up in a HUGE Italian family, meant lots of family gatherings. Lots of food, lots of kids running around, and an awful lot of grownups that I was supposed to hug and kiss. Blech! To be fair, most of them, I didn't mind. I loved getting hugs and kisses from Grandma and Grandpa. Most of my aunts and uncles were just fine, too. But I do remember a few relatives that gave me the Uh-Oh Feeling even when I was just a kid. I also remember that yucky, vulnerable feeling when they made me feel guilty for pulling away or not wanting to express physical affection.
When I shared this story with a friend over coffee last week, she had similar memories. In fact, she and her sister had relatives they called Uncle Oh-No and Cousin Creepy. They hated having to hug their cousin, and Uncle Oh-No was a notorious tickler who wouldn't stop even when they kept telling him to.
To be clear, I'm not saying that we can't trust our family members just because they want to hug or kiss our kids. And I'm not saying that physical affection isn't safe. Hugs, kisses, tickles… that's usually fine, UNLESS -- your child is uncomfortable with this physical attention or if it seems to be a little excessive and just plain weird. Trust your instincts, and let your child trust theirs.
Fact: 90% of childhood sexual abuse happens to kids by someone they know and have an established relationship with.
Fact: Over 34% of abuse is perpetuated by relatives or family friends.
That's why it's important that as parents we don't insist that they hug "Uncle Johnny" or that family friend or relative who visits every holiday. Instead of telling your child to give someone a hug, ask ‘em if they want to! If they say no, let them offer a high five or a wave, or simply use their words to say hello or goodbye.
I know we're trying to raise nice kids who aren't rude or obnoxious. But it can be a dangerous message we give our kids when we insist that they deny their instincts and force them to be affectionate so that we, the parent, can save face.
It's not about being suspicious of everyone, it's just about teaching our kids that they are the "Boss of their Body", and that we're going to respect their needs. Who knows… maybe Uncle Johnny did something weird a little earlier when you weren't around. Maybe his tickles just feel yucky.
Later on when it's time to go home, you tell your child to hurry up and give Uncle Johnny a kiss goodbye. When she refuses, he starts piling on the guilt tactics. You start insisting your child give him a kiss, just so you can leave already!
The message your child gets:
Clearly, there will be times when your child just doesn't feel like giving someone a hug or kiss. For whatever reason. It doesn't mean everyone's a molester. Maybe Grandma is just wearing too much perfume today or grandpa just ate a big piece of salami! Or maybe it's something else. We've got to listen to our kids.
Helpful Tip! Not sure how to respond when you're child doesn't want to hug grandma? I try to take the focus off the other person and simply say something like "You know, Grandma, we've been working really hard teaching Jessie that she can be the boss of her body so that she stays safe. I could really use your help teaching her this." You're more likely to get Grandma's buy-in now because it's not about her anymore, it's about helping reinforce an important safety rule for her grandchild. Grandma may not like it at first, but at least she understands your child's reasoning now.
And… if it's Uncle Oh-No or Cousin Creepy, you can say the same thing. It's a nice clear message that you and your child are on the same page!
The greatest gift we can give our kids doesn't come wrapped in a box.
It's the gift of letting them know they are cherished, loved, and protected.