Respecting Your Child’s Boundaries

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One of the things I find most frustrating while raising my daughter is the expectation that kids need to give hugs to people they know.

“Your cousin is leaving, give him a hug!”

“Oh, look, it’s grandma! Give her a hug!”

It’s something that seems so very innocent and sweet, especially when it’s a toddler ‘running’ to whomever it is, but there’s also a downside to this attitude.

I remember growing up that, when asked to hug my grandmother, I was extremely uncomfortable. We only saw her a handful of times a year, I didn’t know her very well, and I wasn’t much of a hugger at that time. Of course, there were other people I loved to hug but my grandmother was not one of them at all times.

So when I was told ‘Go hug Grandma’, there was an expectation that I suddenly felt that I had to meet despite feeling uncomfortable. It was a weird sense of ‘this will make someone happy, do it for them’ that wasn’t at all intended, but it stuck.

Watching my daughter now, there are clear moments when she does NOT want to be touched. Don’t hold her, don’t kiss her, don’t try to cuddle her, stop rocking her. There are DON’T TOUCH moments that are sometimes ignored in a mixed generation house, and watching as a one-year-old tries to express that she doesn’t want to be touched can be hard.

It’s unfair, though, to make the entire greeting or goodbye touch-free, so my husband and I devised a few things to help our daughter and our older nephew enjoy seeing people come and go.

  1. Avoid making the ‘don’t touch me’ feeling a ‘bad’ feeling. It’s perfectly okay for our kids not to want to touch someone with a hug or even a cuddle. I can speak for myself when I say I’ve had plenty of times where I did not want to be touched and felt guilty about it. Try to keep these moments positive and open-ended. “You don’t want to give Grandma a hug? That’s okay, maybe you can give her a hug later if you feel like it” is a way better option than “Oh, that’ll make Grandma sad if you don’t hug her.” Guilt is not a great way to go.
  2. Offer options! My five-year-old nephew LOVES coming over and hanging out, and part of it is being offered options for how he’d like to say ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. Work with your kiddo to come up with some options that you as a family can use if you don’t want to be touched. We do a wave, a high five, and a hug as they incorporate different amounts of touching the other person. Some nights, he really wants a hug. Other nights, when he’s tired, he doesn’t want to do anything but cuddle his dad and wave. That’s more than fine; it’s his choice, and offering him the options that I can use for myself means that he’ll respect those choices when I ask.
  3. Remember that it’s okay to put up boundaries for others. Moms have a super hard role in all of this; we have to set up boundaries on our kids’ behalf and sometimes that involves upsetting people. Find a gentle way to let people know that your child is touched out. I typically use the “that is a sound that means Angela is not happy with this. Let’s give her a few minutes and if she wants to keep doing that activity with you, she’ll come back.”

You are the one who shows your child what love and respect look like. Giving your child a voice and listening to that voice is a great way to develop trust and an autonomy that tends to be forgotten. Now, go out there and give your kid a hug (or a high five, or a chicken dance. The choice is up to you guys!)

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Ellie is a former preschool teacher turned mom who originally hails from Eastern Washington. After going to University of Idaho (Go Vandals!) and then meeting the nerd of her dreams, she welcomed a little girl into the world and then moved to Idaho Falls in 2021. Now, as a proud mama of soon-to-be two girls, Ellie spends her days working on fiction novels, wrangling her daughter and chickens, and trying to prepare herself for two under the age of two.

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