The winter holidays are upon us, bringing travel with family, visits with close friends and extended family, and more time than you could hope for (or maybe want) with… family! Hooray! This is a lovely time of togetherness and joy.
…or is it?
For a kid, it might be terrifying. Imagine this:
- You’re two years old and Mom places you on the lap of some strange guy in a red suit who smells weird and holds you as you try to wiggle away. Mom then tells you to smile for the camera. Wait, what?
- You’re 12 and you know you’re supposed to hug all of your relatives, but Uncle Mike always squeezes a bit too long, and Grandma kisses on the mouth, and to make matters worse, your body has started to develop and you don’t want anyone to notice. Not to mention, you haven’t seen some of these people since you were 8 – they’re practically strangers! Help!!
What can we do to make this time fun and wonderful and not-scary for our kids? Easy: listen to them. Respect their boundaries. Support them when they say no and offer them alternatives so they can avoid an uncomfortable situation.
How to support your children
As with everything, it begins with the communication and trust that you establish and nurture with your child. This is a life-long activity and one which will yield so many benefits.
Start with acknowledging your child’s agency, or “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices” (Barker, Chris. 2005. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage. ISBN 0-7619-4156-8 p448 via Wikipedia). If you’re talking with a young child, you can teach him that he is the boss of his own body, but mommies and daddies are still the bosses of stuff like what’s for dinner and when it’s time to take a bath.
If you’re talking with a school-aged child, you can reinforce the idea that she is the boss of her own body and start introducing more refined messages about setting boundaries that are comfortable for her (not wanting help during or after bathing, for example). Pre-teens and young adults can handle more complicated ideas about boundaries and consent with people inside and outside the family.
No matter what age your child is, they need you to provide support like words to say and acceptable alternatives when they wish to assert a boundary. For example, they might not want to hug an eager aunt they’ve never met (or don’t remember meeting). If they know they can offer an offer a handshake or high-five instead, it might spare everyone an awkward scene of screaming and hiding. If your child knows you’re standing by and keeping them safe, they might warm up to that hug. Or not. The point is, they feel safe and ok and that is important.
Teaching kids words like “no” and “this doesn’t feel ok to me” and “I don’t want to” gives them the vocabulary they need to communicate their boundaries clearly. Listening to them and respecting their “no” will not only affirm their trust in you but will help them learn to listen to and respect the “no” of others.
Remember, kissing Santa is a choice
So, even though you are sure that the mall Santa is totally benign or that your cousin is the nicest person in the world, realize that they might still register the “stranger danger” alarm for your child. Granting your child the opportunity to exercise boundaries around physical contact and time needed to build relationships at his or her own pace is one of the greatest gifts you can give.
Celina Criss, Ph.D. is a sex coach and educator. She invites her clients to bring playfulness to their encounters while encouraging them to take it s.l.o.w.