If it feels weird to have to force your kid to hug their relatives, there's a reason.

It's your little inner voice saying, 'There is another way.'

Lots of parents know this scenario.

The in-laws get in after long travels for the holidays, and the first thing they want when they walk in the door are hugs and kisses from their darling grandbabies.

Super sweet.


Except when the kids aren't feeling like freely giving affection. What happens next?

"Please don't make me give hugs!" Image by Capture Queen/Flickr.

We parents sometimes cave to the societal pressure to show off a kid we know to be loving and affectionate, even when they aren't particularly in a mood to be those things.

Sometimes in the moment during family get-togethers, we pressure them to show physical affection when they just aren't up to it. If you've been there before and had that nagging feeling afterward, it's OK to learn from that and do it differently next time.

The whole hugging-relatives thing can seem complicated, but I'm going to break it down. First, with some reasons why forcing our kids to be that person is a bad idea. Second, with why we get confused for a moment and think it's a good idea. And third, with some middle-ground solutions that balance diplomacy with your child's feelings.

1. It's a bad idea to force snuggly-wugglies that aren't genuine because:

To begin with, the bond between you and your child has got to be first and foremost.

Whether it's trusting you enough to come tell you mistakes that they've made or knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are on their side if someone ever violates their trust, it's crucial for your kids to never doubt your allegiance. So when you force Isabelle to hug people who she's telling you she doesn't feel like hugging, it kind of sends a subtle but lasting message that you care more about being on Team Grandma or Team New Stranger than being on Team Isabelle.

Additionally, forcing kids to give physical affection they aren't feeling tells them to ignore their own feelings to appease others.

A certain amount of rising to the occasion is a good skill to learn, but not at the expense of physical comfort and psychological well-being. While YOU may know that Grandma is harmless, it's less about the actual inherent risk and more about the practice of teaching your children that their boundaries matter and will be recognized. A child who learns early on that their "no" means something is an empowered child. It's not going to turn them into a spoiled brat just because they get to decide who they want to demonstrate physical affection with. There are other ways to raise a balanced child than insisting they give up bodily autonomy.

Peter Saunders, chief executive of the U.K.-based National Association for People Abused in Childhood, reinforces this point in The Guardian:

"There are certain things we [should] make children do which is quite different. We make them brush their teeth, for example. That is quite different to forcing them to kiss an uncle they don't want to. It's about boundaries. And this blurring of boundaries [by forcing them to kiss someone they don't want to] can indeed blur their understanding of what is right and wrong, about their body belonging to them."

2. Why it seemed like a good idea at the time to push the kids to hug their family:

In the moment, when Granddad's feelings are hurt because his kiss got rejected, it can seem like a good idea to cajole your child into acquiescing.

We want the world to see our children in their best light, as we see them — the cuddly, adorable, and loving little creatures they can be. We want the world to see we've raised well-adjusted, outgoing, socially successful beings. We don't want family members to feel rejected or embarrassed. We don't want our kids thought of as brats. All of those feelings and competing objectives are real, but none of them trumps the facts that you are your child's teammate and they get to make the final call on what they do with their body. Those are still the most important things in such a situation.

It's always better when kids are giving hugs because they want to, anyway! Image by Brent Payne/Flickr.

3. It doesn't have to be a choice between making your kids hug people or letting them be rude.

There are plenty of other hug-diplomacy options in between.

  • Before big events and family functions, practice an age-appropriate alternate response with your child. Having a prepared talking point can be a lifesaver for a kid in an awkward position — you've just given them a tool for dealing with life AND you've cemented yourself unmistakably in their corner. You can teach 2-year-olds that it's OK to high-five instead of hug. You can teach 6-year-olds to say, "I've had a long day, let's just fist-bump." Teaching children not to be unkind is important, but it should always be their choice if they wish to go above the minimum kindness of acknowledgement. If they spontaneously decide they want to offer a hug, then great! But if not, they have a dignified "out" and the pressure is off.
  • You can prep family and friends before events if you talk to them. Let them know your little ragamuffin is not always up for hugs and kisses and not to take it personally if that's the case. It's not bad for adults to be reminded to be gracious and not put kids in uncomfortable situations, either.
  • Have a joke ready to ease the embarrassment if a situation gets fraught — as long as it doesn't make your child the punchline. "If we all were as cute and huggable as he is, we'd be running the other direction from everyone, too!"

The bottom line: Relax about it (which will help everyone else follow suit), and make sure your kid knows you have their back even as you work your role as chief manners-enforcer. If millions of parents did this, imagine the healthy boundary-setting skills of the next generation!

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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