You may have seen this article written by my friend and colleague Melissa Pintor Carnagey, founder of Sex Positive Families. It’s all about how to defend your child’s body boundaries with other adults.
This is a question I get a lot, because teaching consent is relatively new, and many of our family members are not on board quite yet. In fact, many are straight up displeased to be told No.
I get it! I want a hug and kiss goodbye too. It’s hard to feel affection for your precious child, and not get to express it as you’d like.
At the same time, the lesson – give affection to appease others, even when you don’t want to – is not one I want to teach my child. That sets up a poor foundation for intimate relationships later on.
So how do we navigate these tricky boundaries? Here are some suggestions:
Feel it in your bones that any hurt feelings are not the child’s fault. When someone chooses not to be affectionate with someone else, it has no meaning. We might think of it as rejection, but there’s no reason to take it so personally. The other person might simply not want to be touched by anyone in that moment.
While I do want my child to acknowledge another person, it’s totally ok to do so without touching, or to touch in a less intimate way. Words, a wave, a high five or fist bump are perfectly fine substitutions for a hug or kiss.
Which means, when the child doesn’t want to hug or kiss, they aren’t bad or wrong in any way. The other person’s reaction wasn’t provoked by the child.
The mismatch simply exists, and it’s no one’s fault.
If you agree that no one owes anyone touch, that it’s not bad to withhold touch if you don’t want to give it, then the person demanding affection is the one who bears the burden of shifting.
Resolve to allow the adult to be uncomfortable. You and your child don’t have to fix their problem and make them comfortable.
You might voice this by simply observing, acknowledging the mismatch: “It looks like Jamie doesn’t want to hug. Sorry about that. Maybe next time.”
If observing didn’t do the trick, you might have to confront the adult.
What? Confront?! What if confrontation is scary? What if confrontations never go well? Maybe person is my parent – how do I confront my parent?
Yes, confront. It’s a life skill, and many of us are still figuring out how to do it. Here are some suggestions for confronting well.
Give yourself room to build this skill
If you can confront in the moment, that’s ideal. A quick message might be all you need: “We’ve told Jamie he/she doesn’t have to hug goodbye.”
But if the moment passes, don’t kick yourself. The push for affection is typically brief, and sometimes it’s over before you can step in.
It’s still worth talking about. Come back to it another time, maybe that evening or the next day. The longer you wait, the murkier the details will be, so talk with the child in the earliest private moment.
Share what you saw and ask how they felt. Help them label their emotion, where they felt it in their body, and what they’d like to do if the same situation ever happens again. If you forget to talk about one of these or get interrupted, come back to it.
When confronting the adult, again, it’s best after a fresh incident. Chances are, if this is someone in your community, it will happen again and you’ll get another shot. You might want to help the adult change, or at least better tolerate their discomfort.
Arrange for a private conversation
Ask, “Is this a good time to talk?” With someone who you know is volatile, get them a coffee and take a stroll (really – holding something warm promotes trust, and rhythmic motion soothes), maybe in a public place.
Lead with a common goal
This person is in your life for some reason. The desire for touch most likely comes from something positive, so identify it. Say, “It’s clear to me that we both love Jamie and want the best for him/her…” This puts you on the same team.
Clarify your intent
The other person might be trying to figure out what this conversation is about, and whether you’ve got an ulterior motive. You might have a long history with them and you might be able to guess exactly how they’ll misconstrue your motives. Take a moment to speak to that, saying, “I don’t mean…I do mean…”
An example might be: “Mom, I don’t mean to tell you what to do. I’m not trying to control your relationship with Jamie. I do want to talk about our hellos though, which I think could go a lot smoother.” Or, “Coach, I don’t mean to tell you how to do things on the team. I’m not unhappy with you at all. But I do want to talk about the tradition of spanking in baseball.”
Share your value
Can you summarize what you feel in one or two sentences? “It’s really important to me that we don’t teach Jamie to be affectionate when he/she doesn’t want to be.” Or, “I don’t want Jamie to learn that other people’s feelings are more important than his/her own.”
Share the facts
Say exactly what you witnessed. “Here’s what I saw: Last visit, you asked for a hug and Jaimie shied away. Then you approached Jamie and…”
It’s really important to have the mindset piece down for this part. If you believe someone’s to blame, it will leak out. It will sound like blame, and the other person will probably react defensively. Remember, it’s simply a mismatch, no one’s fault. That puts you in a really neutral place.
Have your exit ready
If the person you’re confronting receives it badly or attacks you, stay in your goodness. Know you’ve done the right thing 100%, as best you possibly could.
Exit the conversation: “Thanks for hearing me out. We can both think about this some more.” Then leave or change the subject.
You may really do some more thinking, but know that if it goes badly, the fact that they can’t have a conversation about this is a red flag. If they can’t hear your concerns with them, they probably can’t hear your child’s either. Consider the amount and kind of contact your child has with them. More distance might be called for.
These conversations are never easy! Setting strong boundaries takes practice. If you’re having trouble setting boundaries with someone in your life, I’m happy to help. Jump on my calendar for a free phone conversation.
In support of you,