Communicating your toddler’s boundaries to relatives

Teaching your toddler about their body is one of the most important parenting jobs you have. From naming body parts to talking about appropriate touch, they begin to learn about consent and body autonomy at a very young age. So when a relative asks Baby for a hug—and they say “no”— what should you do?

Does your child have to hug relatives?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should not force children to give hugs or kisses to people they do not want to, even grandparents. The AAP encourages parents to constantly reinforce the idea that a toddler’s body is their own, and they can protect it. If you ask Baby to hug their grandparents goodbye and they say no (either with words or body language), it’s important to honor their wishes.  

Establishing your rules

Parents need to ask themselves, “Do I expect my child to hug or kiss a relative just because I say so?” If the answer is “no,” it’s important to then talk with Baby about what may happen during greetings and goodbyes beforehand, so you have the opportunity to explain to them (without doing so while standing in front of the relative), why it’s their choice to pick how they want to show affection.

Ways to communicate your preferences to family

Explaining your wishes to friends and family is crucial if you want them to respect your decision to not force your child to give hugs. Being confident and kind in your approach with relatives, increases the chance they will hear you and honor your rules.

And while some people may not understand your policy at first, most will agree that respect should not be equated with consenting to unwanted physical contact. A relative who understands this way of thinking will be more than happy with a verbal “goodbye,” followed by a wave or high-five.

Alternatives to hugs

Ask Baby to wave goodbye and say “see you next time.” They can also give a high-five, handshake, or fist bump, if you still want them to respond with more than a verbal goodbye. Drawing a picture ahead of time for a relative you are visiting is another way for your child to show they care. And when you’re with family, you can simply ask them, “Would you like to give grandma a hug, handshake, or a high-five?” All of the choices show respect to the adult and allows your child to express their feelings.  

Refusing physical affection should not be equated with bad manners. Children can (and should) be polite and respectful while still maintaining their own personal boundaries. If we force children to show physical affection when they’re uncomfortable, we take the chance they will begin to ignore their own intuition.

And if you are still in need of guidance about what to do, it’s always best to consult with your child’s pediatrician on how to proceed.

About the author:
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer focusing on parenting, health, and wellness. She is passionate about all things fitness and health and loves spending time with her husband, daughter, and son. 

  • Kendra Moyses. “Should you force your child to show affection to relatives?” Michigan State University Extension. Michigan State University, January 12 2017. Retrieved July 11 2017.
  • “Sexual Behaviors in Young Children: What’s Normal, What’s Not.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, June 19 2016. Retrieved July 11 2017. 
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