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Child and grandmother hugging on couch with title and subtitle above them.As parents well know, the holiday season is both incredibly exciting and potentially overwhelming for kids, sometimes all rolled together into one. At gatherings with families and friends, expectations about affection, attention, and teasing can create unnecessary stress and discomfort. By accepting our children’s different personalities and thinking through our boundaries ahead of time, we can teach our kids important life skills and make holiday parties and reunions more fun.

Most of us can remember being pressured to just “suffer through it” during our own childhoods. Who doesn’t recall being forced to kiss a great aunt as a kid, or getting scratched by an uncle’s beard as he leaned in for a squeeze? Or, being told to just ignore the teasing and roughhousing of our cousins?

As a parent, it might feel embarrassing when a child doesn’t want to give a big hug to the grandparent who just arrived – especially after many months or years apart. And, supporting our children when they set boundaries is a very important practice.

Backing up a child who doesn’t want to be kissed or hugged does not mean that the grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins are doing anything wrong, but it does demonstrate that touch and play for affection or fun is your child’s choice in all situations. The holidays are a perfect time to work on boundary-setting skills with our kids, so they feel confident and empowered as they move through different ages and stages of life.

When possible, try to bring relatives into this conversation ahead of time, letting them know that you are practicing with the kids to help them learn to set boundaries—and who better to practice with than people who know and care about the kids! That way, when a child sets a boundary with grandparents, they can feel that they are part of a positive practice rather than being left out. Some parents say that this is a difficult conversation to have, but it’s an important one, and an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and exploration. Many parents feel that their culture has expectations the children show adults respect through affection.

At Kidpower, we have found that this is truly a cross-cultural phenomena across a wide variety of backgrounds – see also Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity in Teaching ‘People Safety’ Skills.

This is an issue that is worth our time to consider and discuss with others in our lives: how can we come up with ways for children to show respect to their elders in ways that feel nurturing and respectful to the child as well? How can we expect our children to set clear boundaries about touch when they are on their own, if we do not support them in setting clear boundaries when we are together with our families, in a position to advocate for our kids and back them up?

In practice, this may be as simple (yet powerful) as saying, “Do you want to give a hug, a high-five, a kiss, or a wave? ….Not right now? Okay… Maybe you’ll want to blow a kiss or do a high-five later.”

Some kids thrive on the opportunities to be the center of attention. Be prepared to help them to notice the boundaries of others and to remember to follow your safety rules about Checking First before changing the plan, even in a family gathering.

Some children are more reserved and do best when we allow them to warm up at their own pace. They might need your involved advocacy to redirect unwanted attention away from them – and your help in setting boundaries when well-meaning adults try to pressure them.

Even if a relative is offended when a child does not want to kiss or hug them, this is an important time to keep in mind the bottom line: kids need to learn from an early age that touch or play for affection or fun should be the choice of BOTH people, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret. This core safety rule should be respected in all situations.

Touch or play for affection or fun should be the choice of BOTH people, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret.

It’s confusing for kids to try to set aside their feelings of discomfort for certain kinds of affection or teasing in the name of good manners, since it gives young people a contradictory message about their boundaries. Keep in mind Kidpower’s founding principle: A child’s safety and healthy self-esteem are more important than ANYONE’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense. Or, more simply stated: Put Safety First.

Here are additional Kidpower resources with strategies to make our holiday gatherings truly joyful:

Holiday Boundaries: Protecting Children’s Boundaries and Helping Others Do the Same
Holiday Outings with Kids: Safety plans for having more fun and fewer problems out in public
Why Affection and Teasing Should be a Child’s Choice
Making Family Gatherings Great – Not Awful!
Holiday Power – Take Charge of Emotional Safety During the Holidays

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Published: November 10, 2021   |   Last Updated: November 10, 2021

Kidpower Senior Program Leader and North Carolina Center Co-Director Dr. Amy Tiemann is co-creator of "Doing Right by Our Kids," author of "MojoMom," and editor/creator of Courageous Parents, "Confident Kids: Letting Go So We Both Can Grow."