Body Boundaries for Tweens and Teens During the Holidays

The holidays are, for many, a wonderful time to be with family and friends, share meals and celebrations, and to pause and be thankful.  But for children and teens, the holidays can also be fraught with discomfort as they face family members and friends who want to hug, kiss, or snuggle them as a way to say hello, bid goodbye, or show gratitude or affection.

Many parents understand that with small children, it’s important that we never force them to engage in physical contact they are uncomfortable with—that we give them autonomy over their bodies.  As their protectors, we must become staunch supporters of our children’s right to say “no.” This is the beginning of teaching them the idea of consent.  But as our children grow into tweens and teens, and societal expectations of them evolve and change, celebrations and gatherings can provide new challenges: how do we preserve our children’s sense of autonomy when we aren’t able to protect them in the same way we could when they were little?

In the adult world, physical affection, particularly among close friends and family, is considered pretty normal, and most adults have figured out how to navigate that landscape.  But we can’t assume that our kids are equally adept at that navigation.  Indeed, many teens and tweens are truly uncomfortable with physical affection, whether it be with one specific person or the entire family, but they don’t know how to effectively express that and worry about hurting feelings.  So what’s a parent to do?  How can we help them deal with those challenges in a way that feels safe to them?

If you have a child for whom these situations are hard (and you’ll usually know it if you do), here are some easy tips to help you both navigate the season (and the entire year!):

1.       Talk to your child in advance of any gathering.  Make sure you know his or her preferences and whether there is anyone they’d rather not be physical with.  If they tell you that there is—even if it’s someone you love dearly—assure them that you support them and will have their back. 

2.       Talk to your parenting partner, if you have one.  Make sure you both understand your child’s wishes and are prepared to support them if needed.  A child with two adults on their team feels even safer than with just one. 

3.       If appropriate depending on the situation, run interference for your teen in advance.  This may feel awkward but it doesn’t have to be.  For example:  “Grandma, I love you and so does Billy, but he’s not real into hugs right now and we want to support him.  I just didn’t want you to take offense at Christmas if he choses not to hug you goodbye.”  For teens and tweens, I recommend getting their permission before doing this.

4.       When possible, help your tween out by creating a physical barrier between her and the person she’d rather not have close contact with.  Place your arm around her, or stand in such a way that offering or accepting a hug is less natural.

5.       Since you can’t be there every second, give your teen some skills that he can use to protect himself.  You can coach him to take the initiative and set the tone for the greeting or farewell by being the first to offer a handshake, fist bump, pat on the arm, or side hug—whatever he’s comfortable with.

6.       Teach your tween to create her own physical boundary when you can’t be there to do it for her—teach her to hold something in her arms like a coat, purse, gift, or even a pet or younger sibling so that it makes it harder for the invasive uncle/neighbor/grandparent to try to force a hug.

7.       Let your teen know that it is perfectly okay to say, “I’m not a hugger, but Merry Christmas—it was great to see you!”   Please do not coach them to add “I’m sorry” into that statement—children should not have to apologize to adults (or anyone) for making decisions they feel keep them safe and feeling comfortable.

8.       Demonstrate what consent looks like for your child and for the other adults in the room—let other adults hear you ask for consent before hugging someone and get full agreement before going in for that hug yourself.  This is particularly important when you are offering a hug or other physical affection to another child.

Some of these may sound or feel awkward at first, but you can help reduce that awkwardness and increase your teen’s fortitude by role playing these tactics until they feel adequately prepared to handle their social gatherings.  If you can act out likely scenarios with your particular cast of characters, your child will not only get the message that they can count on you no matter who is involved, they will feel more in control of their own experience and able to confidently navigate the social landscape of your holidays—a win for everyone. 

It can be hard to help our tweens and teens in these situations, particularly if you are comfortable with physical affection yourself, or feel protective of the feelings of the hugger.  However, sending the message to your child (at any age) that they can count on you in these situations and that their body autonomy takes priority over someone else’s feelings will pay off in spades as you build trust, connection, and respect.  And that, my friends, is hearftful parenting.

Questions? Comments?  Reach out to me at christy@theheartfulparent.com  And don’t forget to join our mailing list so you don’t miss any insights on this and other parenting issues!  Happy Holidays!