Q: My four-year-old child is extremely shy and retreats when relatives try to hug or kiss her at greetings and departures. I’m afraid my daughter is coming across as rude or unloving, or that I look like an overly indulgent parent because I am not making her do it. Sometimes they say things that suggest I’m a bad parent because I’ve brought up a withdrawn, nervous, or shy child. Should I just make her do it and trust she won’t be scarred for life or hold my ground?
A: This can be a tricky issue. You don’t want to see your relatives’ feelings get hurt, or have them judge you as a parent, but here’s the deal; you need to teach your children that they have a right to their personal boundaries. They need to know that it’s ok to say, “No” when someone wants to touch or kiss them and they’re not comfortable with it. And finally, you need them to know that you have his or her back when they exert their right to set boundaries with others. This means if she’s saying “No” you need to have her back by intervening not only by speaking for her but also by going the extra mile by not apologizing for her or shaming her (i.e., “sorry, she’s just shy”).
Why is this? Because when we do this our children are listening to the messages we are sending. Messages such as other people’s feelings are more important than your right to say “no.” Messages like setting boundaries is a indication of a character flaw (i.e., shyness), an insecurity, or a weakness. And by apologizing for this behavior, or worse by pushing for contact she’s not comfortable with, you are inadvertently demonstrating that perhaps you can’t be trusted to have her back later when she needs to say “no.” So what CAN you do? Hug the relatives yourself. Tell them how glad you are to see them and if your child is standoffish give a comment that normalize it such as, “I guess not today” with a compassionate and confident smile, then change the subject. By doing this you send the message to everyone that physical contact is at the child’s discretion and that it’s “ok” either way, and that it can be “no big deal” to say “No.” Finally by doing this we show that we don’t need to expend a lot of bandwidth worrying about how others respond to our setting of personal boundaries. When boundary setting is still not accepted a simple statement such as, “I’m sorry that’s hard for you mom.” can also clarify to everyone who is having the issue with the moment.
Originally Published in the Lakelands Leader in our Laudable Life advice column