It’s a common scene – a grandparent spreading their arms wide for a hug and saying, “Come here, and give your Grandma a hug!” To which a frightened child squirms away or dodges the hug, hiding behind a parent. So begins a lecture from the grandparent about being rude or disrespectful. They may even forcibly hug the reluctant child while the parents stand by, unsure of what to do.
While well-meaning, many grandparents insist upon hugs, even when their grandchild isn’t consenting. What they might not know is this: forcing personal touch can negatively impact the child in both subtle and profound ways.
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What’s Wrong With Forced Affection?
What grandparents don’t often know is that forcing children to show physical affection can undermine their sense of bodily autonomy. When a grandparent, or any caregiver, forces a child to accept hugs or other touches when the child is resisting or saying no, it teaches the child they do not have control over their physical boundaries.
This confusing message about not having full autonomy over their own body can lead to several negative consequences. It can make children feel anxious and insecure as they realize they cannot always rely on adults to respect their boundaries. They may also become less able to assert their boundaries in other situations as well, which could leave them vulnerable to abuse.
Teaching kids they have to accept unwanted affection from relatives also sends the message it’s okay for anyone in the family to touch them, even if they protest. This takes away their ability to listen to their internal signals about what feels safe and comfortable when it comes to physical touch.
Why Do Grandparents Force Affection?
If forcing affection on kids has a negative impact, why do grandparents do it?
To answer this question, it helps to dive deeper and look at forced affection from a place of curiosity. Getting curious about a grandparent’s behaviour can provide some valuable insights so we can address forced hugs from a place of understanding.
Many grandparents grew up when cultural norms around affection and greetings were different than they are today. As children, they may have been expected to give hugs to relatives and friends of the family, even if they didn’t feel comfortable with it. Certain social groups open and close gatherings with hugs as a part of their customary greeting. If your child’s grandparents are forcing hugs, it can help to get curious about their customs and culture to help put this behaviour into perspective.
Many grandparents insist on physical affection from their grandchild because they have a strong desire to feel connected to their grandchild. Hugging might be an attempt to connect with them, especially if they’re not as close to their grandchild as they hoped to be. If they don’t see their grandchild as often as they would like to or feel disconnected, forced affection can be a way of overcompensating for these feelings. Even though there are other ways to connect with kids, this might be the only tool a grandparent knows how to use. This may tell us they need to learn new skills to connect with their grandkids in safe and loving ways!
Lack of Awareness
Many grandparents insist on forced affection because they are unaware of the negative consequences. If they’ve never been told that forced hugs can cause distress or confusion for a child, then their behaviour makes sense. Perhaps it seems harmless to them because they’ve never known it to be harmful. Even though we can understand a grandparent’s perspective, it doesn’t make forced affection okay. This is why it’s important to explain the potential harms, assert boundaries, and model the behaviours we want to see.
Getting the Conversation Started
I encourage families to have a conversation about the effects of forced affection before a family gathering. This gives a grandparent the opportunity to ask questions or process any feelings they might have.
When you start this conversation, it’s important to advocate for a child using facts to educate a grandparent, while also ensuring you respect their perspective. We want to avoid addressing them in a shaming or judgemental way. This might sound like:
“I love that you want to be close to Bella. I know giving hugs is a way you connect with her…”
“I know when you ask Henry for a hug, it’s because you love him!”
Once you’ve opened this conversation in a loving way, it helps to share some of your reflections to validate and acknowledge the grandparent’s behaviour. This can sound like:
“I know it’s custom for you to greet guests with hugs. I love that affection is important to you!”
“It makes sense that you ask Kim for a hug when you see her – your grandparents did the same for you!”
After acknowledging a grandparent’s perspective and articulating that you understand their behaviour, you can start to educate them about the impacts of forced hugs.
“We are teaching our kids that they are the boss of their body. Receiving a hug without their consent can feel confusing and uncomfortable for them. We ask them if they’d like a hug so they feel safe and in charge of their body.”
“We want our kids to feel cared for, valued, and safe. This means they get to choose when people touch their bodies. When they’re forced into physical touch, it can create negative associations with the adults who are trying to hug them. I want our kids to have positive associations with their family members, which is why we ask permission first.”
Be sure to reinforce that you know the grandparents have the best intentions and only want love and bonding. But forced touch often has the opposite effect. Respecting boundaries around physical affection is one way grandparents can put their grandchild’s emotional needs first.
Use engaging games, worksheets, and posters to help your child learn anatomically correct names, how to say no to unwanted touch, the difference between secrets and surprises, and so much more!
Check out The Body Safety Toolkit here →
Scripts for Setting Boundaries
If you haven’t had a chance to have a conversation with a grandparent, or you’ve spoken to them, and they still continue to force affection, here are some “in the moment” scripts to help you set boundaries (or re-assert boundaries) in a firm, and loving way.
If grandparents say: “When you were little, we made you give hugs to your grandparents, and you turned out just fine.”
Try this: “I love that you want my kids to be close to you, like I was with my grandparents. You’re a safe and trusted adult, but sometimes unsafe adults try to force affection, so we want our kids to learn to say no.”
If grandparents say: “But, I’m their grandparent, and they should hug me!”
Try this: “I understand that you love them so much. Is there another way you can show the kids that you love them?”
If grandparents say: “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal! Parents are so sensitive now.”
Try this: “I know you did your best for me with the information you had when I was growing up. I am doing the same for my own kids.”
Suggest Alternatives Ways to Connect
After asserting a boundary, it can help to suggest an alternative way to connect with kids.
Offer a High Five or Fist Bump
High fives are a playful way to engage with kids while still respecting their personal space. Grandparents can say something like, “Can I get a high five?” before lightly slapping palms together. This turns asking for consent into a fun interaction.
Create a Secret Signal or Handshake
A grandparent can create a secret signal to connect with a grandchild, such as a wink or silly face. This alternative to hugs also promotes connection. If a child is open to handshakes, you can use this opportunity to create a special handshake reserved just for the child and their grandparent.
Give Them an Air Hug or Blow a Kiss
Air hugs are a playful and connected alternative to physical affection. Grandparents can make eye contact with their grandkids while tightly crossing their arms to mimic a hug. This motion allows a grandparent to express their affection to a child without imposing a physical boundary.
Share an Experience
A grandparent could take an interest in a child’s hobby or special interest. This can be as simple as asking questions about their interests or inviting them to share a one-on-one experience. Asking a grandchild to play games or read a book together allows bonding to happen organically through the joy of shared experiences.
Standing Up for Our Kids Is Key
Our generation is learning and using new ways to keep our kids safe. Change may come with pushback from previous generations, but rest in the truth that protecting and standing up for your kids matters.
Setting boundaries and standing up for our kids is key. When we model how important consent is, we help our children learn that their NO truly matters.
If you want help teaching your child about body safety and consent so they’re confident setting their own personal boundaries, use our Body Safety Toolkit! The printable toolkit will help you start these conversations and teach your child how to keep their bodies safe and love themselves through colouring, storytelling, and more engaging activities.
- Respect bodily autonomy: Forcing hugs can undermine a child’s sense of bodily autonomy. It’s important to teach children they have control over their physical boundaries.
- Understand cultural norms and desire to connect: Many grandparents force affection due to cultural practices or a genuine desire to connect with their grandchildren. However, there are other ways to foster connection that respect a child’s comfort levels.
- Educate about potential harms: Many grandparents might not be aware of the harm that forced affection can cause. Helpful and respectful conversations can enlighten them about potential negative impacts.
- Setting boundaries with love and firmness: Prepare responses to common objections from grandparents and set boundaries respectfully. Make sure to reinforce your understanding of their intentions, while asserting the importance of consent.
- Offer alternatives to forced affection: High-fives, secret signals, air hugs, or shared experiences can replace forced hugs while still promoting connection, and teaching consent.
- Stand up for children: Despite possible pushback, standing up for your child’s comfort and sense of safety and consent should always be a priority.