Hi Dr. Joanette: My son, age five, is in a shy stage around people he doesn’t see regularly. My partner’s parents are coming for Christmas Eve; we haven’t seen them in over a year. His Grandma loves to scoop up her grandkids and smother them with kisses. This isn’t going to go well when he shouts, No, I don’t want a hug and runs away from Grandma. I need some ideas of how to handle this before it happens and his Grandma’s feelings are hurt.
Thank you for considering such an important potential challenge before it happens. It tells me you have a lot of empathy for others.
You are asking how do I teach my son to pay attention to what his body is telling him to do, even when it makes his Grandma unhappy.
First, check in with yourself. How does your body feel when you say the following phrases aloud? I am in charge of my body and its boundaries. I am the only person who knows what I am ready for and want. I can assert myself based on what feels right, and it’s okay if other people don’t like it. It is important to honor what the emotions in my body are telling me, even when it makes someone else unhappy.
Believing that you have the right to decide about your body comes from the messages you received in your early years. The early years are when our children learn, I can say no, or stop, or I don’t like that, even when It makes someone else upset. Being able to hold that boundary when they get older comes from them learning to pay attention to their emotions/sensations in their body. Holding that boundary will happen if they are encouraged to notice and believe the feelings of “I’m ready for this or I’m comfortable with this” vs. “I’m uncomfortable, something about this doesn’t feel right.” When we tell them to push those feelings aside to make someone else happy, they may learn the feelings of others are more important than what I want or feel I need.
One of the questions that kids are constantly asking themselves is what do the sensations in my body mean? Can I trust myself to understand those sensations better than others, or do I need to rely on others to tell me what they mean.
Now, back to your question.
You and your partner may want to have a discussion with Grandma and explain that you believe it’s essential that her grandson knows he is in charge of his body. That he can listen to and trust what his body is telling him. That means he may say no to the hugs and kisses you love giving him. Let Grandma know you understand the hugs and kisses are her way of telling him how much she loves him, and if he says no, it doesn’t mean anything more than no. She might disagree with your parenting decision or be upset, but that’s okay. Those are her feelings, not yours.
If Grandma insists on hugs and kisses when she arrives and then gets upset because your son shouts no or runs away, what might you do?
Go to your son and say, “It’s okay that you don’t want to hug or kiss Grandma. You are the only one in your body, and your body must be telling you something about this doesn’t feel right. It’s essential to listen to your body. Here’s the other thing. Grandma is upset because she wants a hug and kisses. It’s okay for her to be upset. Grandma is allowed to feel sad and upset because you said no. You don’t have to change your mind because she is sad and upset.”
Then talk to grandma and tell her, “I know you might disagree with how I am parenting, but please don’t give him mixed messages.”