All is merry and bright and everyone is feeling quite alright…or are they? When you think about holiday gatherings, you probably imagine scenes of friends and loved ones greeting each other with some sort of physical affection. You may reminisce fondly sitting on a grandparent’s lap while presents are being passed around or of grandma stroking your hair as she talks about “how much you’ve grown”. For some people, they feel loved and cared for through physical affection, but others may struggle with feeling anxious at the thought of physical affection or may feel that their personal space is violated.
Picture this scene: The Christmas family gathering is coming to a close, the food has been enjoyed, presents have been opened and many new memories have been made. You gather up your children and tell them to say goodbye to everyone. For most of your family members, “good-bye” includes a big hug and maybe even a kiss on the cheek. As you make your rounds, you notice that your child is moving quickly towards the door and not hugging loved ones. “Get back over here and give everyone a hug, silly!” you say. In the car on the way home, you tell your child that they shouldn’t be rude and try to leave without properly saying good-bye. Your child tells you that they “just don’t like giving hugs”.
It's easy to want your child to express affection in a certain way. Although many people were taught to give hugs to loved ones as a form of affection and respect, it does not mean that it would be disrespectful if your child chose to express their affection in a different way. In the scene above, the child couldn’t figure out how to express their discomfort until prompted to talk about it in the car ride home. Many children may feel this way as they do not want to get in trouble with their parents and do not want to make anyone upset at them. This is why helping your child set boundaries before the family gathering can be so important for them. But how do you do that? And what do those boundaries look like? Here are some practical steps you can take to creating boundaries and setting those boundaries in place at the next gathering:
1. You can start by determining what boundaries you are comfortable with and what is important to you. Are you comfortable if everyone wants to give your child a hug? What about a kiss? What if your cheery aunt wants your child to sit in her lap while presents are being passed out? Or if your goofy uncle wants to tickle your children? Consider what scenarios may happen in your family and determine where you as a parent want to draw the line.
2. Have a conversation with your child(ren) to see how they feel about physical affection. If you have multiple children, you may notice that some of them are okay with more physical affection than others. This normal and it’s okay for them to have different boundaries.
3. Come up with a plan for how you will address the boundaries. This step will be largely dependent on how your family dynamic is. Do you have a family group message where everyone texts all the time? If so, you could send a text prior to the gathering letting everyone know that you would like to have people fist bump or give high fives with your children instead of hugs. Do you have relatives who may be more likely to push these boundaries? Be prepared to stand your ground and navigate push back to your boundaries. If push back happens, try reminding the relative that there are many ways to show that your child loves them and that the lack of hugs, kisses, etc., does not reflect a lack of love. If you anticipate that you’ll be doing more boundary setting in the moment, be ready to advocate for your child! When grandpa goes in for a hug, kindly say “He likes to fist bump instead, grandpa! Maybe you guys could even make a fun handshake!” When your goofy uncle tries to tickle, you could say “She actually doesn’t like to be tickled. But she does like to play thumb war!”
4. Remember that these interactions will probably feel awkward and uncomfortable. Some people may become aggravated with you for the boundaries you have set. However, it is important that you teach your child that it’s okay to have bodily autonomy and that they don’t have to do something with their body just because someone tells them to or out of fear of making someone upset. Setting these thought processes in place now can have a positive impact on their safety now and in the future. It could even positively impact their future dating relationships. Also keep in mind that for many of your family members, your new boundaries are probably the opposite of what they were taught about love and respect growing up. Kindly set boundaries (and remind them of the boundaries) without becoming defensive quickly. The goal is to strengthen the relationship between your child and that person in a way that your child feels most comfortable.
What do the experts say about setting boundaries at family gatherings?
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Rachel Busman, suggests that parents come up with alternative forms of affectionthat the child is most comfortable with.
The Child Mind Institute states that parents should allow children to decide “if and when they want to show affection” and to avoid being “dismissive” about their child’s boundaries.
Nationwide Children’s Hospital suggests that parents have conversations with their children about safe and unsafe interactions and physical touch. They also suggest that parents help their child identify safe adults that they can talk to if they are uncomfortable. They advise that parents should help their child to set boundaries and not force the child to go against those boundaries.
Don’t feel discouraged if this takes some time to get used to! It’s important that your children know that they can feel respected and know that you have their back.