Many parents welcome holiday gatherings as a time for small children to bond with relatives—until their little one runs away and hides when grandma asks for a kiss.
Smoothing over relatives’ hurt feelings falls to mom or dad. “That level of discomfort and shyness can make a child seem rude, and leave you thinking, ‘I’m a bad parent,’ ” says
an author and educator on parenting who conducts workshops on communicating with children.
Greeting adult relatives and friends at holiday gatherings can be daunting for a small child. It’s an emotional topic for many adults, too, as shown by a fiery social-media response to a recent blog post by the Girl Scouts advising against pressuring children to hug or kiss relatives. Easing the strain requires understanding the obstacles from children’s points of view, preparing them for social encounters and staying patient as they learn at their own speed.
Most psychologists agree that children shouldn’t be forced to hug or kiss adults if they don’t want to. Five-year-old
used to turn sideways, arms pressed to his sides, when adults tried to hug him, as if he were thinking, “Uhhhh, what are you doing?” says his father, Darrell, of Charlotte, N.C. He has stopped pressing Ethan to hug anyone, telling relatives this Thanksgiving, “If you want a hug or a kiss, you have to ask permission, and if he says no, you have to be OK with that,” he says.
Shaming or embarrassing a child for avoiding social contact can interfere with developing the ability to assert themselves and build a sense of identity, says
a New York pediatrician and an executive-committee member on developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents should also avoid trying to justify a child’s reticence by announcing, “She’s just shy,” Ms. Faber says. “The danger is that you’re putting the child into a role and the diagnosis becomes the disease,” making it harder for the child to behave differently in the future, she says.
who enjoys socializing, was frustrated when her 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte, shrank from greeting guests at their home. Dr. Cormack of New York, a political-science professor, wanted her daughter to make eye contact and talk to people. But if a relative approached to hug or talk with Charlotte, she looked away and buried her face in her mother’s leg.
Dr. Cormack came to understand her daughter’s temperament and found a middle ground: She told Charlotte she didn’t have to talk to anyone if she didn’t want to, but that she must acknowledge others and make eye contact when they spoke to her. The next time Charlotte hid from a guest, Dr. Cormack encouraged her to turn and look at him and bat her eyes in greeting. Charlotte embraced the new behavior right away. “It was almost a relief for her” to be excused from having to engage in conversation or submit to a hug, Dr. Cormack says.
Close holiday encounters with relatives have been sitcom fodder for decades. “It’s the universal holiday story—the elderly aunt who would squish you and kiss you with the lipsticky lips,” says Ms. Faber, co-author of “How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen.”
Children can become overwhelmed when holiday events upset their normal routines and unleash a barrage of unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells, says
a psychologist with the child and adolescent psychiatry unit of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Those who are highly sensitive to touch or smell are especially likely to recoil from a relative’s handshake or hug. Even children who usually enjoy socializing can freeze in social situations, trying to control their emotions, Dr. Dahlsgaard says.
Etiquette experts say learning to look directly at others who are speaking to them is among the first skills children should learn, typically starting around age 3. By 10, most children can hold a conversation with an adult.Making eye contact is a foundational skill. It activates what cognitive neuroscientists call the social brain—a network of brain regions linked to such skills as recognizing faces and empathizing and engaging with others.
But youngsters under 10 are still learning to interpret social signals. Making eye contact can be terrifying to a socially unsure or shy child. She hasn’t yet learned to set boundaries on others’ interactions with her.
Children’s shrinking attention spans can make the problem worse. Brandon Billinger’s 7-year-old son, William, is so active and energetic that he races right past adult relatives at family gatherings, to play videogames with his cousins, says Mr. Billinger, of Lenexa, Kan. He and his wife, Elizabeth, are teaching William to stop, acknowledge and greet older family members.
Parents can prepare children for gatherings by talking about whom they might see and what to expect. Some parents role-play greetings at home, using a teddy bear and talking about how happy Teddy is to get a friendly hello from the child. Others make a photo book of relatives’ faces and names, to familiarize the child with family members and why they’re important to parents.
Children tend not to notice when their actions offend others, because they haven’t developed an ability to empathize at age 5 or 6. Dr. Levine suggests making up “social stories”—tales or sketches that explain, step-by-step, various social cues and people’s responses to them. A parent might spin a yarn about how Johnny’s relatives came to visit and he didn’t feel like kissing anyone, but the relatives were a little insulted. But shaking hands can make people happy, too, so he thought about greeting them with a handshake.
Children who still hang back can be given a job to do, such as taking guests’ coats. If adults complain, Ms. Faber suggests employing “three little magic words: ‘When he’s ready.’ As in, ‘Sammy will come say hi when he’s ready.’ ”
Tips for Managing Children at Family Gatherings
- Talk in advance about whom the child might see and what to expect.
- Consider children’s individual differences, such as shyness or sensitivity to touch.
- Role-play greetings at home by taking roles yourself or using a teddy bear or other toy.
- Give children who avoid greetings a job to do, such as hanging coats.
- Praise good social behavior when you see it.
- Force a child to hug or kiss a relative.
- Expect a child to always be at his or her best during complex holiday gatherings.
- Shame or embarrass a child for avoiding social contact.
- Label a child in front of others, such as saying he’s shy or hyperactive.
- Expect a child to master many social skills at once.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at Sue.Shellenbarger@wsj.com