Are you a huggy kind of person? I am not. Though I often do it, it’s actually not instinctual for me to hug “hello” like it is for some folks. I’m someone who can easily get “touched out”, meaning that before and after certain points in the day I don’t really want anyone hugging, snuggling or leaning against me at all. If it’s within the first 30 minutes or so of the morning, don’t touch me. If I’ve been at a particularly loud or overstimulating event (like a full-day work-related conference where people are constantly talking) or had a week of no solitude whatsoever (like when M’s been home sick and generally “around” for days on end), I am not too keen on wanting to cuddle. I don’t like anything but sheets and pillows touching me when I sleep. I don’t like to feel closed in (which is the effect of some kinds of embraces and snuggles)—this is also why I don’t like elevators that are crowded and going up more than 20 or so floors and why I continue to decline headphones and sunglasses at the dentist.
The year when I was nursing M was probably the pinnacle of my feeling so completely frazzled by physical touch because I was, quite honestly, having days where there were mere minutes when I was not touching her. That part of very early motherhood was particularly hard for me, because I felt so alone and guilty for feeling that way. What mother does not want to be holding her new baby? Well, me, it turned out. At least once in a while. And my poor husband that first year. I think he was lucky if he got a weekly kiss from me. No one ever really talks about all of this as being acceptable, if not understandable.
I sound really lovable, right? I think I’ve kind of always been this way, at least insofar as I can recall from early adulthood onward. Of course, there are exceptions and times where I do feel particularly or genuinely snuggly (after a few glasses of wine, for example, or when M seems particularly cute, which is often it seems…pair those two together and I’m hunting for a XXXXL Baby Bjorn online).
M, however, is the opposite of me. She is a very physical person when it comes to displays of affection, though some of this is likely age-related. She hugs me no less than 10 times an hour some days (incidentally, I think it’s those days where I might not be in the best of moods…she’s trying to make me “happy” perhaps, always very intune to how others are feeling). If she could be permanently attached to me somehow, I bet she’d do it in a heartbeat.
On occasion, this dichotomy between us creates palpable conflict. I do my best to truly love and reciprocate all hugs and snuggles she wants and offers, primarily because I know this time is fleeting.
But there are some moments when I just can’t. So, when that happens, I tell her (lovingly, of course) after maybe the 11th or 12th hug of the morning or when she’s crammed right against me while I’m reading her a book, “thank you for the hugs, but I think I need a little space right now” or “please don’t touch me right now, I am not really in the mood”. This last one is what I say when she wants to hang on me or play with my hair or something more physical than affectionate. I then make it a point to circle back in a bit of time to see if her offer of earlier snuggles and hugs is still open, which it almost always is.
I do this (and have done this for a while now) for two reasons. First, my sanity (obviously). But a close second is because I want her to understand that it is OK to say “no” to any kind of touching—even affectionate touching from family—that she does not want. It is always OK to say that, any time, any place, any person. It’s why I do not force her to give hugs to others if she is not in the mood. I will take the fall for failing any kind of social graces we may be shunning when this happens. And when other small children do not want to give hugs to me or M when we see them, I never force the issue either.
I think it’s important to teach kids about the unwanted “bad” touches, of course. But it seems as though some folks are less inclined to say it’s OK to decline unwanted “good” touches (but not all, thankfully). This makes me scratch my head. Are they afraid of offending someone? That it makes us seem like we do not like them anymore? I’m not sure what the reasoning is. But it’s uncomfortable for me when I can sense that a young child does not want to engage in a full embrace that particular day, yet they feel they have no voice to tell the hugger otherwise. Those are the times when I just stand up and say how about a fist bump instead? That usually does the trick because the huggee doesn’t feel awkward in a social setting yet retains control over his/her body, even if they have not been able to verbally articulate that kind of demand.
I feel particularly strongly about this because if M (or any small child) does not have a sense of being in control of their body now, what will that look like down the road? Given M’s inclination to be a more passive person, a “people pleaser”, I don’t think it is totally irrational to think this out a few paces, at least not until I see some hardcore assertiveness coming from her.
The good news? I think I’m starting to see it. My own honesty and assertiveness about when I do not want to be touched is paying off. In the past few weeks I’ve heard her tell at least three people (all family members, including me!) that she did not want to be touched or tickled at a particular moment (like a hug during a board game or a tickle session that, at some point, became too much for her). She said it politely but firmly. You knew she meant it. My heart melted when I heard those words come out of her. It also melted when the recipients of the “no touching” message just matter of factly said, “OK” and stopped immediately—no one last tickle, no cajoling for another hug, no feigned hurt feelings. They rightfully and unconditionally acquiesced to the authority she exerted, right then and there. She also told me of an occasion at school where she told one of her classmates to stop touching her rest mat which, in the world of five year olds, is a very intimate place considering it has her blanket and lovey, not to mention she is lying down in a darkened room.
YES!! She does have it in her, at least when pushed. This is very good, especially as the tether becomes even looser in the coming months when Kindergarten arrives and the inevitable drop-off playdates become more routine. In other words, when I am not around.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz