Despite grandma’s coos and outstretched arms, your 10-year-old is standing his ground: He refuses to give her a hug.
While your face might flush at your child refusing to hug a close relative – or even you, beloved mom or dad – rejecting affection is common in preadolescence.
“It usually starts in later elementary and middle school and definitely by high school,” says Judy Malinowski, a clinical psychologist at St. John Providence’s Eastwood Clinics. “As they develop, they start to pull away from their parents and form their own identity.”
And how you handle it can have a larger impact than you may realize, says Malinowski.
What’s the deal?
Malinowski says this is a typical response for tweens, who have a newfound sense of identity and sudden awareness of “sticking out.” They might physically or verbally withdraw, get argumentative or change their hair or clothes.
“They’re trying different things on to see what fits,” Malinowski says. “A parent might say, ‘Last year you were into sports and wearing button-down shirts, and now you only wear black T-shirts.’ It’s a confusing time for parents.”
There’s a lot of change happening biologically with tweens, too.
“They may feel very uncomfortable with any kind of high level of emotion,” she adds. “They’re beginning to understand how people see them. They don’t want to feel strange or weird.”
It’s part of the “natural separation” that starts happening at this age, she says. Kids go through waves where they want to be close with mom and dad – and not.
“That is what bothers parents,” she says, “but part of that is the moods – where they’re going through hormonal changes, issues at school, etc.”
A positive side
Your child’s refusal to hug and kiss loving relatives can also be a teachable moment about consent, says Malinowski.
“You want to teach children from an early age that you have the ability to say, ‘I don’t want to hug so-and-so,'” she says. “When you start to force someone to do something they don’t want to do, it creates a sense of shame.”
Empowering kids to say “no” also reinforces the lesson that kids should be wary (to a certain extent) of strangers. “We say, ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ but we say, ‘Go give Uncle Harry – who you never see – a hug,’ and it can create a lot of confusion with children.”
Navigating the turf
The first step is to observe your child, says Malinowski.
“Look at their body language,” she says. “I’ve noticed that when children are outwardly affectionate toward somebody, they are the ones who set the tone.”
That holds true whether it’s a relative or the parent. “Don’t push for affection. Let them take the lead,” Malinowski says.
“It’s really important for parents to realize their child is developing a personality and they’re not always going to want to talk about things,” she adds.
Communicating boundaries with both kids and adults is key.
For example, “Tell the child, ‘We’re going to grandma’s, and you let me know if you’re comfortable giving hugs,'” she says. “They should be polite and say ‘hello,’ but not giving affection is not being disrespectful.”
Talking to relatives before events is a good strategy, too, and she says the best way is to inform without apologizing.
“If a relative does slip up and tries to say something shameful, say in a really calm way, ‘We don’t make somebody feel bad for not giving a hug.’ It feels uncomfortable saying those things, but we’re setting a boundary,” she says.
“Have an open conversation. It could save a lot of feelings.”
Don’t forget: Kids are processing things, too. So give them some space to do that.
“It’s not about you. Parents shouldn’t take things so personally.”
Art by Brent Mosser
This post was originally published in 2017 and is updated regularly.