Before children can talk, they understand affection through touch. They are soothed by being held. They smile at a kiss, or a finger stroked across their cheek. They cling to their parents for comfort. But, as they grow old enough to communicate affection with words, many kids continue to show affection physically — or demand it. Often these open displays of physical affection can make adults feel uncomfortable or put children that don’t understand boundaries in danger. Fortunately, there are ways for parents to help kids understand that they are loved and also that they can’t hug everyone all the time.
“Kids don’t know anything. Parents have to teach them and mold them and be role models,” explains Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, family therapist and author of Simple Habits of Exceptional (But Not Perfect) Parents. Dolan-Del Vecchio notes that some families find modeling appropriate boundaries harder than others. After all, many parents fail to respect their child’s own physical boundary, much less the physical boundaries between husband and wife. “Parents should have a sense of their own reasonable boundaries with each other, with other adults and with their kids. Because if they don’t their kids going to do whatever they do.”
Dolan-Del Vecchio explains that parents should be generous with their boundaries when a child is pre-verbal. After all holding and being held is what gives a baby or toddler a sense of reassurance. But as they develop stronger language skills, parents can begin to use simple language to help enforce appropriate physical boundaries.
These lessons can come in a variety of forms. If a child is all over their classmates at pre-school, it’s okay for parents to encourage a friend hug only at the start of the day and the end of class. Or if they are hanging on family friends or relatives, it’s fine to encourage a child to ask before clinging and kissing. But it’s also important that the kid understands that the problem is not with the affection, but rather with not asking permission.
How to Deal with an Overly Affectionate Child
- Model good personal boundaries as well as physical boundaries with partners, friends, and other family members.
- Don’t react to boundary violations with anger.
- Remind children that it’s important to ask before hugging and kissing anyone, that it’s about respect.
- Be vigilant in teaching stranger danger and helping kids understand where and how they can be touched, as well as who to talk to if they are touched inappropriately.
“The one thing you don’t want to do is to make your child feel that being close and sharing affection with other people is not a good thing,” says Dolan-Del Vecchio. “You have to strike a balance. We have a society where there is too little contact. If we can help our kids to have stronger interpersonal connections that’s very important.”
The best tactic when a kid breaches a person’s boundaries is to show some good humor. This isn’t a time for yelling or shaming. It’s better for parents to pull a child back and remind them that they need to ask how another person would like to be greeted. But the same can be done for people who are greeting an overly affectionate child. It’s not inappropriate for a parent to ask a family member or friend to ask a child for a hug prior to scooping them up in their arms.
“You’re teaching them in a way that doesn’t feel punitive, but just feels like physically imposing a more appropriate boundary,” Dolan-Del Vecchio explains. “You want to give that boundary in a firm way and teach them it’s about respect for the other person.”
But it’s also important for parents of overly affectionate children to double down on stranger-danger awareness, particularly if they are often affectionate to strangers. Dolan-Del Vecchio notes that kids need to be taught the appropriate, anatomical words for their genitals and should be encouraged, regularly, to talk to parents if they are ever touched on their genitals by a stranger.
That said, parents should stress out too much about an overly affectionate child. “Most kids will grow out of that sort of behavior,” he explains. “I wouldn’t get overly alarmed about it.”