Dear Joanna and Julie,
Our almost 6-year-old is overly physically affectionate with his friends. He can’t seem to restrain himself from kissing and hugging (way too long and too hard), and won’t stop even when the other kid complains.
We’ve had many discussions with him about the importance of respecting other people’s bodies and boundaries, and he seems to understand, but that doesn’t help him control his impulses.
When we’re around, we can usually rein him in with a gentle reminder if we see him going overboard. But we’re at a loss about what to do when we’re not there to address it – at school or camp, for instance. We’ve even tried taking away screen time as a consequence, but that doesn’t seem to work.
Of course, we don’t want to teach him to NEVER hug or kiss anyone — just to do it appropriately. If it were hitting, it would be simpler: never acceptable, the end. But helping him understand when (and how much) affection is okay, and teaching him to stop even when he doesn’t want to, is proving to be a lot more complicated.
“In a Tight Squeeze”
Dear Tight Squeeze,
You’re on the right track! Punishment and restricting privileges will not help your son learn to control himself. It sounds like you are trying to do some problem-solving, but you’re missing the all-important first step.
Step one – Acknowledge the child’s feeling first. We cannot emphasize this enough! Spend a generous amount of time talking about how nice it is to hug and squeeze and kiss. How much fun, how much he loves to do it – in the morning, in the afternoon, at bedtimes, with his parents, with his teachers, with his friends, a good squeeze is the best! Once you get started you really don’t want to stop, even when the other person says to stop. It feels too good to stop!
Step two – “The problem is…..”
Then and only then can you talk about other people’s feelings. “The problem is that sometimes other people are not in the mood to be squeezed. They can get upset. What can a person do when he loves to hug but the other person doesn’t want to be hugged so much?”
Step three – “We need ideas…”
Maybe your son can come up with some of his own ideas. Here are a few to start you off:
- Would he like to carry a small favorite stuffed animal that he can hug when the mood strikes, instead of hugging the person?
- When he feels the urge to hug, can he hug himself, wrapping his arms around his own shoulders and kissing his own inner elbows while doing so?
- Could he ask a person if they would like a hug? If they say yes, the hug is on!
- Can he come up with a special word for friends or teachers to use that will be a signal for him to stop?
- Would he like to shop for, or better yet help make, a big stuffed animal or cushion that he can hug to his heart’s content?
- Perhaps the two of you can play a hugging game, so he can practice starting and stopping. You hug him nice and tight and he can say “more” or “stop.” As soon as he says stop, fling your arms away dramatically and say something like “Hug OVER!” (Or “break free!” or “Blast off!” to make it seem like a more fun experience to stop hugging.) Then let him do the same to you. Let him practice on other family members as well, and get some stuffed animals to boot. They can talk to him in their own cute little stuffed animal voices.
Write down all your ideas. Choose the ones you both like. Talk to his teachers and camp counselors about the solutions so that they can help. When he manages to use a solution, notice that with appreciation:
“You felt like hugging, but you knew Amy didn’t want to, so you hugged your own self. You did it!”
If he doesn’t use his solutions, gently extricate the “victim” without scolding your son. Just repeat, “Amy’s not in the mood to be squeezed right now. Let’s find something else to squeeze!”
In addition to problem solving with your son, it may be helpful to find a way to give him the experience he seeks. Some kids (especially those who are on the spectrum or have sensory processing disorder) crave deep pressure. We know one mom who plays the “hotdog game” with her child. She wraps him tightly in a blanket (the bun!) and then puts “condiments” on him. “Ketchup” gets spread on with long firm strokes. “Sauerkraut” is added by chopping up and down his back with the edges of the palms, mustard is pounded on with gentle fists, onions are slapped on, salt and pepper are sprinkled with little fingernail touches, and then the whole thing is eaten up, yumyumyum. A favorite game!
Joanna and Julie