Children and Forced Affection

When my boys were preschool age and younger, family members would sometimes act offended when the boys refused hugs and kisses. My husband and I tried to stifle our eye rolls as family complained that our children were mean.

Mean? Hmmm. We prefer to call it discerning.

We never insisted that our children be affectionate with anyone toward whom they did not feel natural affection. My boys are fortunate to have two understanding grandmothers who have never forced a hug or a kiss on them if they didn’t want it.

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Apparently, my mother has mellowed a bit, as grandmothers tend to do, because as a child I was prompted to show affection toward adults when they asked. I was never particularly fond of it and only did it because I knew I’d be spanked if I dared to embarrass my mother by being disobedient or “rude”. Usually at the heart of a parent’s insistence that a child be physically affectionate is a desire to not offend the person who is requesting affection (and for others, of course, it may be a desire to show that they are in control of their child).

Eventually, this learned dutifulness toward adults who requested affection put me in a scary situation. A trusted father-figure, who had begun the forced affection with brief hugs, attempted to molest me. He groomed me for a couple of years before he made his big move. I never saw it coming because I thought that an adult who was so kind, gentle and affectionate would never try to hurt me.

At least that’s what I’d been led to believe as a child who was promised by adults that they wouldn’t bite me if I’d share a hug or kiss.

Children have natural danger defenses. Staying close to a few trusted care-givers and not getting too close to other, less-emotionally-close adults is a survival mechanism. It’s simply smart and intuitive. Maybe, just maybe, your child is sensing something about Aunt Sally or Next-Door-Neighbor Joe that you are missing for the sake of being polite. Encourage your children’s natural instincts to be selective with their affections. If an adult is offended by your child’s lack of affection, don’t allow that adult to make it your problem. Explain your stance and then drop it.

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These days my boys (mostly) freely give affection to family members because at their ages they understand that it is safe. They know that they are free to give affection if they choose and have given their share of polite hugs. Not because they were forced, but because they see value in being polite to safe and trusted loved ones.

If your child is not affectionate toward even his or her closest few caregivers, talk with your holistic health care practitioner or pediatrician.

This post was originally featured on Allison’s blog, Our Small Hours. Photo via