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You Need To Stop Forcing Your Kids To Hug Their Relatives

girl hugging

TW: mentions of child sexual abuse. I remember being a kid and any time a relative would come over I'd go running into their arms for a big hug. I was the kind of kid who would sit on anyone's lap because I just loved affection. My sister, on the other hand, had to be forced to leave her room and hugging people seemed like torture to her.

As polar opposites, we dealt with different things. She was constantly being told to "go hug your [insert extended family member here]," whereas I came home from school one day telling my mom that the bus driver let me sit on his lap after school as the rest of the kids loaded. Now, as a mom myself, I can only imagine the thoughts that ran through her head when she heard me excitedly declare that news.

According to Victims of Crime, 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall being sexually abused as children. 63% of the females who reported sexual abuse also reported being raped after the age of 14. Finally, 3 out of 4 of every child sexual abuse victim said they personally knew the person who abused them.

It's not the random boogeyman hiding in the bushes that most parents have to watch out for, it's the twisted relative, sick teacher, manipulative coach, or the secretly slimy family friend. These people develop a close bond and relationship with a child, then they hurt them and tell them not to tell their parents, and it happens again, and again, and again.

So, if your child is hesitating to hug someone in the family there could be a reason. In my sister's case, she was just an introvert who wasn't into hugging people she didn't really know all that well (who can blame her?!), but what if her reluctance to emerge from her room or hug a relative had a deeper meaning? What if she was trying to tell our parents something through her actions? What if she was being abused by one of those people our parents forced her to communicate with and physically touch?

Upset problem child with head in hands sitting on staircase concept for childhood bullying, depression stress or frustration
Credit: iStock

This is why parents should not force their children to show intimacy of any kind if they're not comfortable doing so. As my sister shows, its not always a case of abuse, but it could be. So if your child is reluctant to hug someone, don't push it but don't let it go either. After the guest has left, sit down with your kid to ask why they don't want to hug someone. Their body language when they answer your question will tell you a lot.

That's not to say you don't need to require your child to be polite. If, like my sister, your child just simply doesn't want to hug someone, that's okay. As we've grown up and become parents ourselves, my sister and I have implemented a new greeting rule with our kids. If they don't want to hug someone then they have to do something to show a little affection, it can be a secret handshake they make up, a high-five, or what my husband and nephew call a "foot five" where they simply tap their feet together (like a high five) and then laugh hysterically after (hey, whatever works).

Older relatives may not always understand why I'm not requiring my child to hug them, because they were raised in a different generation. I do my best to explain the situation to them in a delicate (unaccusing) way, but even if they don't get it I won't bend. I believe an adult needs to earn my child's love and affection just like they would anyone else.

By advocating for my child, while still requiring them to have manners, I'm doing my job as a parent. I'm continuing to earn their trust and teaching them that they never have to do anything that makes them feel unsafe. We live in the age of true-crime podcasts (#SSDGM) and have learned so much from generations before us. Parenting is always evolving so we can serve our children the best we possibly can. If that means I hurt grandma's feelings because she didn't get a hug, then that's what it means. Grandma will be okay, and my child will feel comfortable and safe.

Also, if my child is a natural hugger and lap-sitter like I was, we will have some conversations about that, too. There is such a thing as being too affectionate to people like the school bus driver.

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