PEOPLE's Health Squad Pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Murray gives tips for parents on speaking to their kids about how they feel comfortable expressing love

By Jen Juneau
November 13, 2018 01:45 PM
Robert Llewellyn/Getty

“Give your aunt/uncle/grandma/grandpa a hug!” is something most people probably heard during their childhoods, but is it the right thing to say to a child?

With the holidays fast approaching, time with extended family becomes more commonplace for many children, and with those gatherings comes the question of how to show love and appreciation.

“This is definitely a topic that worries parents more than it should,” says Dr. Elizabeth Murray, PEOPLE’s Health Squad pediatrician, of the hug debate. “It is actually pretty rare that a relative will get upset that they didn’t get a hug or a kiss, but we often worry that they will.”

Murray points out that, many times, girls are the focus of the discussion about consent and physical versus verbal contact, but the topic “is just as important” for parents to discuss with their sons.

“We know that one out of 10 children will be sexually abused before age 18 and only 10 percent will disclose their abuse because 90 percent of abusers are someone the child knows, loves or trusts,” she says. “We often seem to expect a different set of behaviors from girls than boys, but all children should be taught that they should be able to express their feelings and emotions through words, not just physical contact.”

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Child and mom hugging

Arming a child with the tools to express themselves the way they feel most comfortable is key (for example, helping them find the right words to use with family), while simultaneously teaching them that “manners are important” in whatever exchange they may find themselves part of.

“Also, make sure you, as the parent, have a clear expectation of what your child is developmentally ready to understand,” Murray tells PEOPLE. “A 2-year-old simply cannot process the idea of gift-giving in the way a 10-year-old can. Also, in the mind of a preschool-aged child, the relative they see only once per year is essentially a stranger.”

One way she suggests preparing a child around 4 years of age is with something like, ” ‘We’re going to visit Grammy and Granddad — they will be excited to see you. Are you excited to see them? How do you want to let them know you’re excited to see them?’ ”

Child in thought

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“As a child ages, around school age, you can start the conversation around balancing disappointment with a gift or simply not enjoying a meal that is being served with being polite to the gift-giver or host,” Murray explains.

“You will know your child is ready for this type of conversation when he is able to imagine what it’s like to be another person and have some self-reflection — [for example], ‘How would it make you feel if I told you I didn’t like the present you made for me?’ ” she adds.

What it all boils down to? “At no time should we, as parents, equate allowing physical contact with being nice,” Murray advises. “We demonstrate manners and kindness by the words we use and overall how we treat people — most of our compassion toward others comes from our words. “