Written For ParentCircle Website new design update
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.
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.
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 Counselors Foundation.
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 the 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.
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 kiss 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.
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 favorite 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 realized 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 center of attention from the word go.
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 center.
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.
How can parents make children who don't welcome demonstrativeness feel loved and secure? And how can we allow them to be true to themselves even while helping them integrate with established practices in society? Here are a few suggestions:
Hugging is crucial to a child's well-being at many levels. But it is also important that the child is 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 his parents, it also reinforces his sense of self, and helps him be comfortable with himself and to be mindful of other's wishes too as he grows up.