During the toddler years, we are consumed with trying to keep our children safe. It may have started during infancy when you would check to see if your newborn was breathing at night. Now you do your best to make sure your child doesn’t kill himself by walking. When my son was 18 months old, we were in our new house and it had only one step. We had some friends over and within 90 seconds of me announcing how nice it was not to worry about him hurting himself on steps as there was only one, he came running toward me, slipped and hit his forehead on the corner of the step. Blood everywhere, we rushed to the hospital and to this day he wears a Harry Potter-like scar on his forehead which reminds me to never become too complacent. So our goal as parents during this tenuous and amazing age is containment: containment of our anxiety, containment of our fear, and loving containment of our child. Have you ever heard a parent scream “Be careful!” or “Don’t run or you’ll fall!”? Talk about programming anxiety! How many, many times have I thought these statements and had to take a deep breath and calm myself down so I didn’t project my fear onto my children? And how many times did my inability to contain my fear result in me blurting something like that out? So you can understand why the developmental stage of a parent with a toddler is to learn to contain anxiety. Toddlerhood is a test to regulate your emotions. If we don’t regulate our emotions when our children are toddlers, they end up inheriting our anxiety, as anxiety is so present for parents at this age.
Along with regulating our own emotions is the need to help protect our children from the emotions of others. This may mean reducing visits with a family member who is not emotionally regulated or saying “no” to your parents or family members who insist on your child kissing or hugging them for their own validation.
When we ask our child to hug or kiss someone that he or she is not entirely comfortable hugging or kissing, we unconsciously teach her or him to submit against their will which may lead to increased vulnerability. Yet, this act is so common that you’d be hard-pressed even in the most progressive families to find parents who do not force their children to be held, hugged or kissed unwillingly, mostly by innocent relatives who mean no harm, but still, unwillingly.
I was one of those parents when I first became a mother. I was nervous that my friends and relatives would get their feelings hurt if I didn’t force my daughter to hug or kiss them when they asked for a hug or a kiss. I knew my daughter had no interest in being forced to hug or kiss anyone when she gave me a look of disdain, backed away or sometimes voiced “no!” At first, I would cajole her, as I thought it would be rude not to, “come on,” I would say, “that’s your aunt.” But I soon realized that to force her to submit her kisses and hugs against her will would not only teach her that others’ preferences are more important than hers, but that it was her job to please people (through her body). Oh dear... that was not the message I wanted to program in her.
Others in the field agree; “When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend’s feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them,” said Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention.
What we can do to change this is to consider consent for people of all ages. If our child doesn’t want to give grandpa or grandma a hug, don’t ask her or him to. If everyone is hugging goodbye and your child backs away, don’t ask her or him to hug goodbye. There is a social pressure to please others and to use children to please. It’s time to let go of this expectation and use the idea of consent for people of all ages from newborn to elderly. If you are not sure by his or her body language if they want to be held, hugged, or kissed, then you can ask her or him privately. If your child says no, don’t ask her or him again and don’t force her or him. Just like we want our high school and college aged children to understand “no means no,” we can start teaching them now.