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How Allowing Your Kid To Refuse Hugs Can Make Them Safer

flickr / Ian D. Keating

Hugs are awesome — end of story, right? Actually, it’s not the end of the story (both literally and figuratively). How could something like squeezing your child close to you ever be a complicated issue? Because it’s not you that makes it complicated. Teaching a kid that while hugging is a wonderful activity, and the best way to ingratiate yourself to Jeremy Piven, they also have the right to not be hugged or touch in any way they don’t want to.

RELATED: The Scientific Reason Hugs Benefit Early Childhood Development

You’ve taught your preschooler about stranger danger. And the maybe not-so-obvious techniques, like teaching them the actual names for their privates. But, it turns out there’s a way to help them strengthen their boundaries and teach consent every day: by not forcing them to hug. No. Not even grandma.

The Facts On Sexual Abuse

This is a tremendous bummer, but it’s important to understand the numbers behind sexual abuse because thinking it can’t happen with your kid is pretty damn dangerous. It also sets the stage for understanding why letting a kid refuse a hug is important. So get ready to for the nausea.

  • Abuse occurs at every level of socio-economic status and education level. Awfulness is apparently equal opportunity.
  • A full 90 percent of children who’ve been sexually abused know their abuser
  • 1 in 20 boys and 1 in 5 girls is a victim of childhood sexual abuse

With these (depressing, ugly) facts in mind, it’s important to point out that one of the best ways to protect your kid is to teach them strong boundaries and help them understand consent.

The Basics of Hugs

It’s incredibly important to note that hugs are actually good for your kid. The last thing you want to do is limit this kind of physical affection. Hugs are known to decrease anxiety while promoting a deeper sense of well-being and safety.

What’s important here though, is that you are putting your kid in control of hugging. It’s about giving them the power over consent. The reason hugging is so good for us is because it’s such an intimate activity. Allowing your kid to control the level of intimacy they’re okay with is tremendously empowering — way better than giving them a switchblade, a firm handshake, and wishing them good luck.

The Case Against Forced Hugs

Now about Granny. Is the suggestion here that your kid’s grandma is a depraved sicko? No. And frankly whatever she wants to get into with consenting adults is a-okay.

But a toddler can’t really parse the difference between why a grandma is special, as compared to an uncle, or an entertaining family friend who visits regularly. Forcing a kid to give grandma a hug muddies the cognitive waters.

MORE: How to Teach Boundaries to an Overly Affectionate Child

More than that, forcing a kid to give a relative a hug shows them that they aren’t in control of their body. It shows them that adults have that power. And they might be inclined to give any adult that power in the future. Even creepy adults like Willem Dafoe. (Although he’s more about dabs.)

Even worse is coercing your kid into hugging because someone’s feelings might be hurt. Not only does it make them feel like crap for not wanting to hug, it also plants this idea that being intimate is a way to make people feel better. And you know that chocolate works much better for that.

What To Do Instead

So you get to a place where you understand that allowing your kids to have control of their body is an awesome idea. Won’t that cause grandparents, uncles, and aunties some bad feelings? Maybe. Here’s how to make that better:

  • Talk: Let your relative know you’re letting your kid make these choices to teach them about boundaries and keep them safe. Who can argue with that?
  • Offer Options: You know what’s more badass than a hug? A high five. Or, if he’s meeting Obama, a fist bump.
  • Sweeten The Pot: Let the relatives know that when your kid does decide to give them a hug, it’s actually coming from a place of genuine affection.
  • Keep In Touch: Your relatives desire a connection with your kid. You should support that. So make visits frequent if they’re close. And video chat if they’re far away. This keeps the familial ties strong.

Obviously this topic carries with it a level of controversy, but it’s important to keep in mind this is one of many ways to help keep your kids safe from sexual abuse. At the core of all of this is frank and open conversation with your kid about the power they have to decide who can touch them. And that can make a tremendous difference to their safety.