The holidays are a wonderful time to get together with family, and while big holidays like Thanksgiving are often filled joy and connection, they can also bring up issues of boundaries, become a reminder of strained family relationships, or cause stress and anxiety.

One of the big issues when it comes to children and family gatherings is the issue of body autonomy, or the idea that our bodies belong to us and only we can make decisions regarding our body. For children, this often comes up in the form of unwanted hugs or affection from family members. To you, Great Grandpa Joe or Aunt Martha might be safe relatives you’ve known your entire life, but to a young child they are likely complete strangers. To put this in the child’s perspective, we tell our children all year not to approach strangers, then suddenly at Thanksgiving dinner expect them to give hugs and sit in a stranger’s lap, AND we think it’s cute or silly when they cry or get upset over it.

So this Thanksgiving, give your child (and quite possibly your relatives) a lesson in body autonomy. Your child can choose who they hug, kiss, or touch. You can absolutely ask that the child be polite and greet adults, but they are under no obligation to be grabbed, picked up, or hugged against their will. You can discuss this ahead of time with your child too, and let them know that they might be meeting new people (or remind them of who the relatives are if it’s been a long time), and let them know that you’ll support them by letting them choose what level of affection they are comfortable with.

Of course, many of us were not raised this way, and therefore it’s common for adults to not see this issue from the child’s perspective and not understand why these boundaries are being set. They are not intentionally trying to distress the child, and likely don’t even realize they are doing so (in fact they likely have good intentions and are trying to show affection), but they may require some gentle encouragement to give your child some space and independence.

Here are a few of my favorite responses when a relative or another adult is clearly making a child uncomfortable or when you can tell your child needs some space:

  • “Oh, you didn’t want to be picked up right now, did you? It’s OK, you can keep exploring!”
  • “You can give a hug, handshake, or just wave goodbye! It’s your choice!”
  • “This is Aunt Martha. You met her a long time ago but you probably don’t remember. It’s OK to feel shy when you are meeting all these new people.”
  • “Aunt Martha, I know you are so excited to see Timmy, but he takes some time to warm up to people he doesn’t know. I’m going to give him some time to get used to the house and all these people for a little while.”

What have you found to be your tried and true ways to communicate to your child that they have control over who touches them and when?