This week was one filled with headlines about scores of girls who were sexually abused by their team doctor sometimes with their parents present in the room. These stories are not exceptions, they are harsh realities we all live with but don’t like to talk about. So, today I thought I would share my experience talking to kids about boundaries and trusting their gut so you may feel comfortable having similar conversations with your own kids.

How do I handle it when my kid won’t hug their grandparents?

Timmy was a four year old boy who was loved and adored by his family. I started seeing him when he was in pre-k to help with some potty training issues he was having. Most of his extended family lived out of the state so when he saw them there was an expectation that he would come running and hugging and jumping for joy when he saw them. One day, his mother came in and told me she had a family wedding to go to in a few weeks and that she was worried because Timmy would surely be slow to warm up and not affectionate to their family. She described being pretty embarrassed by his behaviors of not looking at people, hiding behind her legs, not wrapping his arms around when being hugged and wiping kisses off his cheeks when kissed. She asked me what she should do about this and if this was normal.

Timmy’s mom was surprised by the 3 core issues that we discussed:

1) Kids learn to trust themselves, to listen to their gut and to feel confident establishing boundaries with adults when they are not forced into physical or emotional relationships. So, yes even though it was his loving grandmother who he was slow to warm up to, with a little patience on everyone’s part, Timmy would grow to trust her enough to give and receive physical affection. They were all amazed at how much better things went when they followed his lead, when mom stuck around to be a safe base for him and when the grandparents attuned to Timmy’s comfort level. This is one of those times that a child’s desires do come first and these experiences set him up for relationship success in the future.

2) I had mom and Timmy come in for a session together in which we drew things out like “things I like to do with…” and he listed people in his life and drew things he liked to play or do with them. He listed things like bike rides with dad, reading books with mom, playing Candy Land with sitters, and baking with grandma. I suggested to mom that she keep this list and make new ones as needed for the times he would be seeing people that he doesn’t see often. It would remind him and the other person of a comfortable entry point to engage with him and gave Timmy a sense of choice, reinforced that his voice was heard and most importantly that it mattered.

3) Last, we talked about naming body parts by their actual names and talked about what type of touch Timmy liked and didn’t like. He shared that he did like hugs from certain people and that he liked holding hands and high fives. I told he and his mom that this needed to be an ongoing conversation about body boundaries, the power to say no, and that just because his older brother enjoyed tickle monster games didn’t mean that he had to.

This conversation went much easier than Timmy’s mom expected. Once she realized that she could talk to her 4 year old about serious things in a kid friendly way that didn’t scare him she left more confident in her parenting and her ability to explain it to her family. Also, she relaxed and accepted that Timmy’s behaviors were typical in that they were communicating something to her. In this case it was to slow down and allow him to get comfortable with others, whether that ended up with physical affection or not she accepted that it was okay. I encourage parents to model healthy boundaries and then start talking to their kids about them in age appropriate ways starting at ages 3 to 4. There are also books that can help with starting these types of talks.

About the author

Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler, Psy.D. holds a Doctorate of Psychology, is an Author, Speaker, National Media Contributor, Non-Profit Board Member, Girl Scouts Leader, Girls on the Run Coach and Advocate for children. She has been treating children and families for over twenty years with areas of expertise in anxiety, trauma, divorce, stress management and depression. Dr. Ziegler is the author of the best selling book, Mommy Burnout: how to reclaim your life and raise healthier children in the process, the winner of Best Parenting Book of 2018 as awarded by International Latino Book Awards.

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