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The Ballad of Aunt Sally (or When a Hug Isn't a Hug)

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

'Tis the holiday season, when most of us juggle more family events than we have time for. And if you have kids, the circus has more rings. Not only do you get to move your little circus from place to place, you have to manage interactions between your monkeys and everyone else. So let's talk boundaries for a minute.

I'm pretty sure that every parent tells their kid that it's not okay for adults to touch them in a way that makes them uncomfortable. And that they should speak up if it happens. Then, it's Christmas, and Aunt Sally wants to give your kid a hug that your kid definitely doesn't want.

Here's how it goes down. You told your child about the touching thing. And then Aunt Sally wants that hug. Here are the facts: #1, It's a touch from an adult. #2, it makes them uncomfortable. By your own rules, that's a hard no. But you know that Aunt Sally's feelings will be hurt. Now you have a choice to make. Seems simple enough. Intrusive but well-meaning Aunt Sally isn't the kind of adult you were thinking about when you made that touching rule. And it's important to teach kids that hurting someone's feelings is not okay, right? So just hug the lady, and let's move on.

Not so fast. One of the markers of adult neurological processing is the ability to generalize and to understand when to apply exceptions to rules. Teens don't do this well, and little kids don't do it at all. Until they've mastered this, any universal rule you teach needs to be applied across the board in every situation, or you run the risk of undermining your teaching.

When you make your kid hug Aunt Sally, you teach them an exception to the rules about uncomfortable touching. If an adult's feelings are at stake, your kid needs to let that touch happen. You've now established a priority of rules - that adults' feelings take priority over that discomfort with unwanted touch. It doesn't matter that it's just a hug, and it doesn't matter that Aunt Sally isn't going to abuse your child. You talked to your child about unwanted touching to keep them safe and now you've created a loophole through which an abusive adult can reach your child.

Remember, 90% of sexual abusers know the child they abuse. They take time and care to establish a relationship with a child that leads to inappropriate behavior. It starts with behavior that seems appropriate. Like hugging a child. And then it escalates. The only weapon your child has to protect himself is that little feeling inside that says "I'm uncomfortable." It's why we ask our kids to tell us if touch makes them uncomfortable. If you want to know about that feeling when it happens, you need to honor and respect it, even if you're pretty sure your child is overreacting in the moment.

That means it's your job to run interference for your kids. Take a hit for them. Watch for that uncomfortable look and try to cut off the unwanted hug before it happens. Learn a few key phrases, like "why don't we give her a minute to warm up?" or "He's a little overwhelmed. I'm sure he'll give you that hug in a bit." And then complement her ugly Christmas sweater and move on.

Will Aunt Sally get mad? Probably not. I often say that cute kids make grownups do stupid things. Like touching babies when they have a runny nose or running up and hugging a kid they haven't seen in a year. The kind reminder to let your child initiate contact might just snap Aunt Sally back to her senses and help her see that she's overwhelming your child without causing her to cut you out of her will. And, if Aunt Sally does get mad, remember that her reaction is a reflection on her, not on you. You're choosing between your child's safety and Aunt Sally's happiness. Chances are that you didn't want her ugly Christmas sweater collection anyway.

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