The touchy subject of forced affection | Amy Johnson

For over 20 years, I’ve been teaching parents that it’s not a good idea to force their children to give (or receive) affectionate touches to relatives, friends, or anyone — including the parents themselves.

I get push-back. “We’re just being polite,” well-meaning parents will say. Or, “Grandma’s feelings will be hurt.”

Let’s think about this for a moment. There are things we all hope our children will be able to effectively say no to in life, and unwanted touch is one of them. No parent wants their child to be sexually abused. However, only 8 percent of children are sexually abused by strangers, and almost a quarter of all sexual abuse cases in children involve family members (freakonomics.com).

If we focus only on teaching our children to dismiss unwanted touch by strangers, we are missing the boat.

“When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend’s feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them,” said Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention. “This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so ‘he’ll like me’ and kids enduring bullying because everyone is ‘having fun.’”

Think I’m overdoing it? Just take a look at some recent high profile sexual abuse cases and tell me children don’t need every available tool we can offer them to avoid the grooming and abuse that has damaged so many lives. We need to give our children’s safety more importance than someone else’s hurt feelings over not getting a hug.

Further down the road, this type of trust in one’s intuition about touch can help teens say no to sexual behavior. It empowers them to know what they do and don’t want and to say no to having sex with someone “so they’ll like me” or to please someone else.

Teaching children that they are in charge of their bodies is important, and it can require extra work on the part of parents.  Here are some tips on how to navigate this touchy subject:

• Explain to relatives and friends what you are doing and why. Let them know that you want your child to know he or she is in charge of who touches them, and who they choose to touch.

Offer a variety of choices to your child—a wave, high five, a handshake or a hug — to greet and say goodbye to family and friends.

• Insist on respect, just not that your child must offer physical affection in order to please others.

• If you have out of town relatives, use Skype, video-chatting, and other ways to keep in touch and teach your child about the people whom he/she rarely sees.

• Enjoy the joy when relatives and friends receive real affection, not forced hugs, from your child.

For many families, summer is full of family visits, reunions, and relatives galore. Help your child navigate these gatherings with respect — and with their own power in terms of who they touch.


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