At holiday time, we all want the same things for the children in our lives: wonderful memories of fun, family, friends and food. Yet while adults acknowledge that this period can also come with significant stress, we do not often recognize that the same is true for children.

Much of this stress centers on extended family and friends we don’t see often and to whom we may want to present a particular image of ourselves and our families. For children, interacting with people they know little or not at all – but who seem so important to the adults in their lives – is often difficult and confusing.

At holiday time, we send mixed messages to our children. “Being polite” may mean not expressing what they like or don’t like, eating unusual foods and sometimes being told to hug people they don’t know or with whom they feel uncomfortable. These behavior expectations are often generational, and many may well remember the discomfort we felt as children in similar situations. This is one practice to leave behind this holiday.

When we direct children to greet people they do not know or with whom they have expressed discomfort, we are teaching them to override their feelings in order to please or appease others. Sending these messages can actually be dangerous for children, undercutting their self-esteem and making them more likely to be manipulated and to become targets for bullying and abuse.

In my work in violence prevention and response, I often talk with children (and adults) about identifying and listening to their body’s “uh-oh feeling” and shifting their choices and behavior when the sensation arises. We teach young children that their bodies are their own and help them to identify trusted adults to whom they can turn if someone or something makes them feel uncomfortable.

Teaching children to respect their bodies and listen to their signals will help them throughout their lives, but we cannot expect them to set limits with adults.


We need to pay attention and be present when children are greeting adults and older children and not expect them to navigate this alone. By providing the example of good boundaries and using them ourselves, we are setting them up for healthy relationships in the future.

This holiday season, let’s move away from these “traditional” practices and help our kids gain confidence and skills by giving them options and supporting their choices.

 Shift from telling to asking: “Do you want to give Grandma a hug? No? That’s OK.”

Offer options of greeting without touching: “Can you wave at Aunt Sara?”

Tell children that it is OK to say, “No, thank you,” if adults ask for greater contact.

Give them an out. If they’re uncomfortable, suggest they say, “I need to go to the bathroom” and move away from the person or situation.


Some adults may take offense. Explain, “We’re supporting our child in making their own choices about their body. Thank you for understanding.”

In every season:

Help your child identify trusted adults in their lives and know that it is always OK to talk with them if someone or something makes them feel uncomfortable

Talk through new situations and listen to your child’s concerns – they may not be what you expect – but don’t downplay or disregard them.

Notice where your child holds stress in their body and point this out to them. Let them know that their body is giving them information to listen to and that they should share this feeling with you when it occurs.

Educate yourself about the risks to children. For example: Children are at far greater risk from friends, family and acquaintances than from strangers. Become informed.

Engage your child in activities that help them build confidence and trust in their abilities and opinions.

Overall: Listen to your children. Believe them and help them listen to their bodies.

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