Three Touchstones for Healthy Hugging

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Nothing feels more natural than to hug the ones we love. Especially children. And hugs are healthy physically and emotionally, for the giver and the receiver.

Think of the many contexts in which we may hug someone:

  • To greet close friends and family
  • As a goodbye
  • To console and comfort
  • Congratulating a job well done
  • Giving affection in your intimate relationship
  • Celebrating a victory
  • Saying goodnight or good morning
  • As a spontaneous gesture when love or enthusiasm just wells up inside us

It’s natural and inspired to hug, so let’s not get too rule bound or stodgy about it in the spirit of child protection. But let’s do think about three touchstones that can make hugging safer and healthier for children. In fact, for everyone.

Choice. I’d love to give you a hug! Is that ok? Often children initiate hugs and that’s wonderful. But when we are the ones to reach out, it can be very reinforcing to ask the child’s permission. What a beautiful painting! Can I hug you? Asking doesn’t have to snuff out spontaneity and enthusiasm, but it does tell the child that he or she has the right to a physical boundary. It strengthens their choice, self-governance, and empowerment. Oh sweetie you’ve bumped your head. Do you want me to hold you? Even parents asking permission to hug or hold a child can have the effect teaching the child one of their most basic liberties – ownership of their body. Teaching choice about touch is protective from child sexual abuse.

I have a friend that recently told me that giving a child a choice about hugging an elder relative would be an ultimate disrespect! I wondered about this. Why is a child having a choice disrespectful to the elder? I wondered this sincerely – not as an affront to the family culture. I just wasn’t getting that connection.

My friend gave the example of a youngster who refused to hug her grandmother because the grandmother would not buy her something at the store. The child was angry and pouting. And I get we don’t want children withholding affection as a form of revenge. That’s not a healthy pattern at all. But by the same token, do we want to teach children that they must hug, even when they’re angry? How healthy is that going to be in the long run? (I know I’m not particularly thrilled to hug someone when I’m angry. Are you?) There has to be a more creative way to teach children to cope with disappointment than by forcing them to hug the person they’re disappointed with.

So then I thought about it some more, and I reflected on what I’ve been taught and what I’ve realized about my elders over the years. The fact is I would not be here without them. Everything I have – everything – is because of them. The cells of my body come from them. The roof over my head, the food I eat, the relationships I have, the jobs I’ve chosen, my self esteem, my most difficult emotional challenges … this all comes from them. This comes from them not just during childhood, but even today. My parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, a handful of important teachers and coaches  – they have all had an inextricable role in who I’ve become, because they provided everything in the beginning, sometimes at great sacrifice. They provided my very life. And that’s worth hugging!

And I think it’s that recognition and gratitude that we need to instill in our children. And if we would do that, even model that ourselves, hugging our elders would be natural to our children. And perhaps if that recognition were in our children most of the time, then on the occasion when a child strikes upon a mood not to hug, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. It would be a passing mood, as it should be. The child could be given space to regroup and all could be well.

So that said, I’m still not a fan of forcing children to give affection that does not feel natural and desirable to them in the moment – because it demands they override their feelings and instincts, which sets them up for sexual abuse. But I am a huge fan of teaching and modeling appreciation for one’s elders – the very ones who have given us life. And I think these can coexist, quite nicely in fact.

Now, on to the next touchstone.

Intent. I would propose that we should also be checking our intent when we want to hug a child. Said another way, we should have self-awareness about what we want, or about what we are hoping to share with the child. We should notice ourselves internally. Is my hug a form of praise or congratulations? Do I want to comfort the child? Am I expressing love and connection before he goes to sleep for the night? [OR] Am I hugging because I feel guilty instead of saying I’m sorry for something? Am I feeling insecure or afraid? 

When we notice our intent, we get connected inside ourselves with what we are conveying to the child non-verbally. If we find that our inner need or want is healthy and reinforcing to the child, we can accentuate it – really feel it – and the positive message comes across even stronger. But if we find that our need or want is something other than to express love or affirmation, we can decide if some other interaction is more appropriate. Like saying I’m sorry for shouting at the child, or expressing confidence when the child goes off to camp for the first time. We may still hug anyway, but the message of our hug will be more conscious, and thus healthier.

How is this protective? Well here’s the interesting thing. Awareness is contagious. The more aware we are of our intent with children, the more sensitive they become to intent. Without saying a word, our self-awareness communicates a form of sensitivity to the child, which they pick up on. And as I have often said, the difference between kindness to a child and grooming for sexual abuse is in the intent. When we notice and evaluate our intent, we are tacitly teaching children to notice and, yes to evaluate intent.

Comfort. We may offer the child their choice to be hugged, and we may indeed confirm that our intent is healthy and affirming. Still we should be checking the vibe the child is putting out. Is she comfortable? Is he open? The child may say yes it’s ok to hug him, but his energy and body language is pulled-in and private. In that moment we can say, Would you rather shake hands? Or, How ‘bout high five instead? In that moment, we teach the child that he or she has other socially acceptable options.

Because not every child is the same. My neighbor’s child was very affectionate when she was little – not needy, just genuinely affectionate. And I loved that! But I have another friend whose child is on the autism spectrum, and hugging is the last thing he feels good about. My love overflows for each of these children, but how I show it and ‘regulate’ it is very different, child by child.

It’s important to remember especially with little kids that our size alone may be overwhelming to the child. The very fact that we are adults may cause the child to feel obligated, or that being asked permission is not “real.” Awareness of the child’s comfort must be a part of our overall consciousness about hugging.

Whether parent, teacher, relative, coach, or neighbor – we should be mindful of these three basic touchstones when hugging and showing affection to children. Choice. Intent. Comfort. These touchstones reinforce their boundaries and help children develop sensitivity in interpersonal interactions. And we know that boundaries and interpersonal sensitivity are protective against abuses of every kind.