Should you ask your child before hugging him?

Is your child reluctant to be hugged and cuddled? Instead of getting upset, next time, ask for her consent before you hug her. Read on to find out why this is a good idea.

By Susan Philip

Should you ask your child before hugging him?

Manisha rushed out of the lift and let herself into her apartment. “Kamya!” she called, hurrying to her 3-year-old daughter’s room. After a long day at work, she couldn’t wait to see the child. Kamya was playing with her dolls, and Manisha ran to hug her. But the child turned away with a ‘NO Mummy!’ Manisha found herself tearing up.

Does this sound familiar? Have you been in a position where your child rejected your display of affection?
Expressing love for a child by hugging, cuddling, or kissing comes naturally to parents, and most children revel in it. Even as babies, they enjoy being lifted up and carried by their parents and caregivers. In fact, most babies crave being carried and cuddled. This tactile contact, psychologists say, is crucial for the child’s emotional, social, as well as mental development.

On being hugged…

Physical contact, including hugs and kisses, contributes to a baby’s development, both of brain and body. Hugs increase the levels of oxytocin in the bloodstream. Oxytocin, a neuropeptide, is sometimes known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ and plays a role in forging social bonds.
“Cuddling and hugging release oxytocin, the chemical of love and connection, and bonds parents to children. It reduces anxiety and opens the way for relaxation, growth and healing; helps them learn to regulate their emotions by countering cortisol, the stress chemical which is released when a child is upset,” says Arundhati Swamy, Counsellor, ParentCircle, Family and School Counsellor, parenting expert and former President of Chennai Counselor's Foundation.

“Ever since she was born, I have made it a practice to hug my daughter. Today, she’s a mother of two growing children herself, but I continue to hug her each time we meet, and every time we part. I hold her tightly to myself, and she does the same to me. We convey to each other the message that ‘you are mine; I hold you very close to my heart’. We now also extend this to a group hug, involving all members of the family, when we part after holidays. I believe this has increased the bonding among us, and is a treasured part of our relationship.”
– Leela Mary Koshy, author and retired college professor

Many studies have proved that hugs and cuddles, even simply holding hands, boost the immune system and bring down stress and anxiety levels in both children and adults. Prof. Sheldon Cohen and his research team at the Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Studies, conducted a study on the effects of social support implicit in hugs on the incidence of episodes of common cold. The report, published in Psychology Science, says frequent hugs resulted in less severe illness symptoms. The study concluded, among other things, that “Those who regularly receive hugs are somewhat more protected [from infection] than those who do not.”
On the flip side, in 2015, researchers from the University of Notre Dame found that adults who reported a lack of affectionate touches from their parents, among other beneficial parenting practices, had poorer mental health and experienced more distress in social situations than those whose parents gave sufficient hugs, cuddles and caresses.

…Or not!

This brings us to another aspect of hugs – that of fostering social bonding. Some cultures are more tactile than others. They are called ‘no-contact cultures’, as opposed to ‘contact cultures.’ Asian culture is largely ‘no-contact.’ Indians in particular do not generally engage in public displays of affection when it comes to adults. But as a society, it’s not only parents who hug and kiss a child. Grandparents and other relatives and even friends take it as their right to give and receive hugs and kisses and take the child’s consent for granted. When we hug our children, and encourage them to hug relatives and friends, we do it as a way to promote bonds. We also have the habit of forcibly pulling into our arms any baby, even one we see in passing, and giving her a tight hug, kissing her or stroking her cheek or hair. We tend to ignore the baby’s protests, and carry on demonstrating affection lavishly.
Some children put up with this with good grace. But many little ones who enjoy hugs and cuddles with their parents may be unwilling to submit to such demonstrations of affection from members of the extended family and friends circle. This could distress all concerned. However, psychologists caution that we need to respect a child’s consent in this regard.
As child sexual abuse becomes more openly reported and debated, the ‘safe touch-unsafe touch’ topic is being increasingly discussed at schools and also in homes. The message that we seek to convey to our little ones is that if they’re uncomfortable about physical contact, whether with a stranger or a close and ‘trusted’ relative or friend, they should not hesitate to make that clear. This message gets diluted when we insist at the same time that they should submit to kisses and cuddles from even a select few adults, whether they like it or not. Often, parents order their young children to “give aunty a kissy” even if this ‘aunty’ is a long-lost friend who the child has never seen before. This confuses the child.
On another level, if the child doesn’t prefer physical contact, and is overruled by parental authority, she will come to believe that her ‘no’ is bereft of value, and an adult, whether a loved family member or a perfect stranger, can set aside her wishes.
Ms. Ashwini, Founding Director of MUKHTA (a Foundation committed to prevent abuse and promote mental health) explains that when a parent seeks a child’s consent before hugging, the child learns the importance of Bodily Autonomy. “Bodily Autonomy is an idea that we own and are responsible for our bodies,” she explained to ParentCircle.
This is one very important reason why even a parent must get a child’s consent before initiating a simple hug. It reinforces in the child’s mind the fact that it is he who has the final say in what happens to his body; a ‘no’ from him needs to be respected even by close relatives and friends; and any breach of this understanding can be escalated.
Also, the child is likely to model consent-seeking, not just with parents, but with everyone around. In this process, the child learns how to mark boundaries and protect and defend them, and recognizes and respects the boundaries of others, Ms. Ashwini noted. According to Ms. Ashwini, it is crucial that parents seek consent before hugging a child EVERY SINGLE TIME, even when the child has expressed she likes being hugged in the past. In a parent-child relationship, there is a risk of a parent assuming that 'I know my child'. The possibility of over-generalizing a child's wants and needs is very high. A child's wants and needs vary, and a parent must acknowledge it, be willing to understand, and respect it. This way a child understands that she is under no obligation to be the 'SAME' all the time.

Present-day parenting is a challenging task. With the kind of intelligence they have, as well as exposure to gadgets and media, children now are bolder and more ready to experiment than before. And therefore, they are more vulnerable to exploitation. It would be a good thing for parents to make it a habit to ask their children before hugging them, as it will instil the idea that their consent matters. Equally important, this will also teach the children that they need to respect others’ wishes. Children have very little understanding of that concept.
– A senior educationist and retired Headmistress of a premier nursery and primary school in Chennai

No…ooo! Not now!

Apart from the child abuse aspect, it is a fact that not every child enjoys being hugged, every time. Many children, both boys and girls, have to be coaxed into a hug as they progress from infancy to the toddler stage. As the child grows, she discovers herself, and explores the boundaries of her control over her own body and desires. She may be willing to be cuddled only when she’s in a mood for it, or when she feels unhappy, afraid or distressed in any way. Children may be especially unwilling for physical expressions of love when they are engrossed in some activity of their own.

To continue Manisha’s story, she pushed aside her hurt, and asked, “How was pre-school Kamya?” The little girl immediately started talking about her day. Manisha picked up Liza, Kamya’s favourite doll. “Hi Liza”, said Manisha. “I missed you. Can I give you a hug?” She made the doll nod her head. “Thank you, Liza”, said Manisha, and proceeded to hug her warmly. Then she looked at her daughter. “I missed you too, Kamya,” she said. “May I give you a hug as well?”
“Oh, OK,” said the little girl. And Manisha drew her in. After a brief cuddle, she let her go, saying “Thank you”.
Both mother and daughter had smiles on their faces as Kamya picked up her dolls again and Manisha went to make herself a cup of tea.
Manisha understood that Kamya’s reluctance to be hugged was no indication of how much the child loved, or did not love, her. She realised that if she explained to Kamya why she wanted to hug her, and waited to get her consent, it would be a much more pleasurable experience for both herself and her daughter than if she forced Kamya into a cuddle.

Some children take a bit longer than others to get comfortable with people, even if they are not total strangers. They may hang back, resist hugs, and refuse to connect for a while. If such children are given time to adjust to their surroundings and to people, they will usually be better able to engage in meaningful and enjoyable interaction. As parents, we need to accept this part of the child’s personality, and not force him to be the centre of attention from the word ‘go’.

Yuck! NO!

A few children, however, are simply uncomfortable with the idea of physical contact, not only with unfamiliar or less familiar people, but even with parents. This preference could be expressed right from babyhood. Of course, babies can’t talk, but they can clearly convey their feelings non-verbally. As an infant, your child might squirm or cry when she’s picked up randomly, or when someone forcibly carries her, pinches her cheeks or kisses her. She may turn away her face when even you try to kiss her. As a slightly older child, she may rub her hand over her cheek to ‘wipe away’ a kiss she didn’t want. This could lead to some uncomfortable moments with extended family and friends. But we parents owe it to our children to keep their feelings and wishes in this matter front and centre.
Ideally, if parents routinely seek the child’s consent before hugging him, it is best to tell all visitors of this practice in a gentle but firm manner, in the presence of the child, before a hug can happen. However, this may not always be possible, and if a hug happens, a child may respond in various ways, says Ms. Ashwini. Parents then need to observe the child’s reaction. He could seem fine with it, or reluctantly submissive. In either case, it is important to discuss his feelings and thoughts with him after the visitor leaves. But if the child shows active discomfort, parents should step in assertively and stop the contact, even if there is no obvious ‘abusive intent’, she adds.

Love sans hugs

How can parents make children who don’t welcome demonstrativeness feel loved and secure? And how can we allow them be true to themselves even while helping them integrate with established practices in society? Here are a few suggestions:

  • If your baby is obviously uncomfortable or distressed when being handled, you could suggest to visitors that they maintain a slight distance while cooing and talking to him. Explain that he’ll smile for them more readily that way
  • Prepare the child before a visit from or to a relative or friend. Explain that the person may want to show love by hugs or kisses, but assure her that she doesn’t have to hug and kiss them if she doesn’t want to
  • Teach your child how to say ‘no’ to being hugged if he isn’t comfortable. Tell him about alternative ways of greeting - saying Hello/Namaste or doing a high-five, for instance
  • You could encourage your toddler to express affection by offering a flower, even if it’s a wild one, to a visitor or a person she is visiting, or sharing a toy or a book with a friend
  • Prompt your older child to fetch guests a drink of water or walk them to the door when they leave. This will instil in them good manners, as well as a sense of caring, sharing and bonding without having to be physically demonstrative
“Don’t force a child to show affection in a particular way. The child should be free to demonstrate it in a way he is comfortable with.”
– Rohan Philip, Engineering Student, who remembers the resentment he felt as a child, when he was hugged, had his cheeks pinched or his hair ruffled against his will by people known and unknown
  • Regularly ask your child for a hug at set times or occasions – for instance, before she leaves for school every morning. It will help her expect, tolerate, and welcome and benefit from this gesture

Hugging is crucial to a child’s well-being at many levels. But it is also important that the child be allowed to decide if he should be hugged, when he should be hugged, and by whom he should be hugged. This is essential for honing his sixth sense for abuse, and giving him the confidence to stand up against it. When his wishes in the matter are sought and respected by parents, it also reinforces his sense of self, and helps him be comfortable with himself and to be mindful of others’ wishes too as he grows up.

In a Nutshell

  • Hugs and cuddles are vital to a child’s mental, physical, emotional and social development. Physical demonstrations of love and affection have been proven to increase immunity, lower stress and promote self-esteem
  • At the same time, it’s a child’s prerogative to decide if and when to hug/be hugged, even by a parent. We need to respect that, and seek the child’s consent each time before engaging in a cuddle
  • Don’t give conflicting instructions. You shouldn’t warn your child to be wary of physical contact with strangers on one hand, and on the other, insist that he hug and be hugged by people whom you may know and like, but he doesn’t
  • A child who is uneasy with physical demonstrations of affection can be helped to get over this discomfort to an extent. Giving her time to adjust to a new situation, prompting her to make physical contact of a lesser order, like a handshake, or establishing a routine where you request a hug at set times, can be a good start

What you can do right away

  • Ask your child before you hug him each time. You don’t need to do this orally. A simple gesture, like holding out your arms and looking at him questioningly will give him the cue to come to you if he is ready for a cuddle. Accept his decision if he declines
  • Give your child the confidence to be able to say ‘No’ when she’s not comfortable with physical contact with any person, for whatever reason. This will help ensure her safety. It will help her recognise physical abuse, if it happens to her, and report it to you
  • Explain to your child why you want to hug her, or why you are asking her to hug someone. Giving reasons often works better than simply ordering, or making it an emotional tussle
  • If your child is obviously uncomfortable with hugs, cuddles or kisses, encourage him to show affection, care and concern in other ways

About the author:
Written by Susan Philip on 15 October 2019.
Philip, mother to a promising lawyer and an upcoming engineer, believes in empowering her children to be the best that they can be. In a career spanning more than two decades of both online and print-based writing and editing, she has worked for the PTI, UNDP and WAN-IFRA. She also functions as Editorial Coordinator for book projects.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 21 October 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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