Why is my child selectively affectionate with family members?
July 14, 2011 3:04 PM   Subscribe

Why is my three year old opposed to affection from certain family members, including his father? Is this typical for his age? Is there anything I can do to make this situation better?

My three year old son, who is otherwise a very happy, intelligent, and loving child, is really opposed to giving or receiving affection from his father (who hasn't lived with us since my son was 18 months but who he sees regularly) and from his two grandmothers. He is very, very affectionate with me, and pretty affectionate with his grandfathers and aunts and uncles, although he sometimes will not want kisses from them, but hugs and cuddling are always fine. He has been this way since he was about two.

Not only is he not affectionate with these folks, he talks to me about how he doesn't like them, doesn't want to get kisses from them, etc. He also tells them things like this to their face, sometimes saying things about how he doesn't want to share with them or taunting them about something, like not sharing food with them or not including them in something. The only thing that these folks have in common that I can think of is that they are all more emotional and less controlled and with each of them, they have a significantly different approach to boundaries and structure and relating to him than I do. I don't know if that's a huge reach for a cause for this, but that's the only thing I can see that he has maybe picked up on.

Of course, his dad and his grandmothers take this very personally and are upset by it to no end. I have encouraged them to ignore it, and when that went on for several months with no result, I began to get on to him about it, telling him that it's disrespectful and wrong to hurt other people's feelings and making him apologize, but I have never made him be affectionate, because to me that's inappropriate and a major violation of his autonomy. I don't want to force him to do something that makes him uncomfortable.

That said, I am starting to become concerned. His father and I got divorced when he was two, and maybe that has something to do with this. Or maybe this is typical for his age? I am clueless. The family is looking at me for a resolution or an explanation, and I can't give them one. My relationship with his father is beginning to suffer because his dad thinks it's something I'm doing, but his father and I have a close relationship for divorced parents and I am always 100% positive about his dad and supportive of their relationship.

In short, I'd appreciate any advice or anecdotes that might help me make sense of this. As I mentioned, my son is super affectionate with me and generally an outgoing, warm kid. What could be going on here? Thanks everyone!
posted by mudlark to Human Relations (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I began to get on to him about it, telling him that it's disrespectful and wrong to hurt other people's feelings and making him apologize, but I have never made him be affectionate, because to me that's inappropriate and a major violation of his autonomy. I don't want to force him to do something that makes him uncomfortable.

I think you're on the right track. Teach your son to be polite and use nice language, but don't teach him to ignore his instincts of discomfort--those are pretty important and you don't want him ignoring his instincts about touching and his body.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:21 PM on July 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I should add that when I drop him off at his dad's house, he is very showily affectionate to me when he says goodbye, almost over the top, with several kisses and phrases like, "I'll miss you" and, "I love you with all my heart." It seems like he over does it to send a message to his dad. It's sweet, and he and I are super close, but maybe this is a way for him to show loyalty? If that's a possibility, how can I teach him that he doesn't need to feel loyal to me? Is this a single mother-son phenomenon?
posted by mudlark at 3:22 PM on July 14, 2011

Best answer: My three year old does this with some close family members (not his dad or me). We figured out it had more to do with what happens when those people show up. Specifically, mom and dad go away or pay less attention to him. He is in a pretty clingy mom-phase right now and other adults don't have the appeal that his friends, his baby sister, or mom and dad do. He does it most often to his uncle who babysits regularly, and not nearly as much to his grandparents who all live far away. I'd think a non custodial parent would be similar, as a regular presence in his life, but maybe a sign that his world is being disrupted or his routines will be different. We are also paying close attention to him to be sure that something deeper isn't going on and that his feelings are validated.
posted by pekala at 3:23 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My nephew has been like this with some relatives. From 2-4 or so, he wanted little to do with female adult relatives, besides his mom. He generally didn't like it when people were gratuitous with attention and hugs/kisses, but especially hated attention from grandma and aunts. But in general, was way more huggy and friendly with uncles, grandfathers. For a while I was on "cool" terms with him because I knew to tone down the zomgnephewadorableness, but then for several months, and rather abruptly, he started hating when I was around. Just being in the same room was enough for me to get the stink eye, if not outright telling me to go away. It took several months to get him to open up to his mom (my sister) about the sudden hate. The reason? Apparently I ate his apples.

FWIW, I'm allergic to apples, and very rarely eat them, so am pretty positive I never ate nephew's apples. But for whatever reason, he was really angry about it, and held a grudge against me for months. So the next time I visited, I brought him "special Boston Apples!!" from Shaw's (your standard chain grocery store). A whole bag, only for him. And then we were totally cool again.

The divorce might have something to do with it, but so might subtle behavior by your husband your son is sensitive to. He might see you as his ally, and his dad as encroaching on that loyalty. Have you tried to gently talk to him about why he feels/acts as he does with his dad?

In general, toddlers are fickle, irrational creatures. They are second only to cats in their general weirdness.
posted by raztaj at 3:28 PM on July 14, 2011 [15 favorites]

My nephew is weird like this. Sometimes, he won't have anything to do with me, and the next, I'm his best friend (though, often it's because UNCLE CHRIS HAS AN IPAD AND IT'S THE BEST THING EVER!!!!!11!!!111!!)

Facial hair changing might be something that weirds him out, too (the dramatic changing of it). I've had kids who I would see on a weekly basis (friends' kids, etc.) that didn't want anything to do with me when I shaved my beard once a while back.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 3:44 PM on July 14, 2011

Best answer: My daughter was "slow to warm," and outright resistant to warm to certain people. As a toddler, this was often due to sheer sensory overload (grandma and grandpa are loud, and this overwhelmed her) -- and also a high degree of emotional sensitivity (grandma and grandpa are anxious, and she picked up on that). I wrestled with this because I didn't want her to learn to discount her instincts about people/situations (and because I grew up a sensitive kid who was shamed for my sensitivity) -- but I also felt bad for the people she took so long to warm up to, because in most cases they were all fine, loving people who thought the world of her.

So we ended up having lots of conversations about how it's fine to feel like you want to keep to yourself, but in most situations you have to be polite about expressing that. (It sounds ridiculous to say that I had these conversations with a three-year-old, but I really did, and they really were conversations.) We lived in an elevator building, and strangers making chit-chat was a huge thing for her at the time, so every day it was this whole drill -- "We're going on the elevator. There will be other people on the elevator. Other people like to say hello to be friendly. It's okay if you don't feel like being friendly. But it's polite to say hello back. And usually once you say hello back, they stop talking to you. In fact, sometimes NOT saying hello back makes them try to talk to you more! So say hello, and then if you don't feel like talking after that, you don't have to, and I will help you."

That kind of became the guideline for situations like that -- "I understand you feel X, here's how to exist in human society even when you feel like X, you might not feel like X forever, but you feel like X now and that's okay." There was the occasional incident of her shouting at the top of her lungs, "I'M NOT FEELING FRIENDLY TODAY!" at someone who was simply saying hello, but for the most part, it worked out okay. (P.S. she's 12 now, and awesome and empathetic and sensitive and confident, and "warms" at a totally socially acceptable rate!)
posted by mothershock at 4:05 PM on July 14, 2011 [40 favorites]

raztaj: In general, toddlers are fickle, irrational creatures. They are second only to cats in their general weirdness.

Quoted for truth.

My great-nephew was the same way for a year or so, but eventually out grew it and is quite the sociable young boy.
posted by deborah at 4:47 PM on July 14, 2011

Best answer: My nephew, who turned 3 in March, was like this with with my mother (his grandma) for a long time. He would warn her off of any nice things he had; if he got a piece of chocolate from someone, he would look over at my mom and tell her angrily- "No gramma take it!" Needless to say, my mother wasn't in the habit of taking chocolate or anything else from him. My mother didn't force the issue with him, just was kind to him in ways he did accept (making favorite foods and so on). Now they have a more mutually affectionate relationship, as my nephew has come to realize that grandma can be an ally against grandpa's monster attacks.

Nephew also went through a period of several months where he refused all kisses from everyone but his mother. Daddy, grandma (of course), the best auntie in the world (me) - none of us were allowed to kiss him, and if we tried, he said "No kisses, yuckie!" and wiped them off. Today kisses are once again allowed.

I would continue to emphasize to your ex that you are NOT is any way undermining his relationship with your son. It would be real shame if a positive co-parenting situation was damaged because of adult reactions to a toddler's behavior.
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 4:55 PM on July 14, 2011

Best answer: Are any of them smokers? Have bad breath or questionable personal hygiene? Scratchy beards? Overwhelming perfume? My dad was a smoker and it made physical contact with him yucky, for a sensitive-nosed child (too bad as ironically he was a much more hands-on dad than other dads of his generation).

Is there a tight hugger in the bunch, someone who overwhelms your toddler with "Oooh, Auntie Jennifer's here! Give Auntie Jennifer a BIG KISS!" while sweeping him up into a heavily perfumed embraced. Kids have sensitive little senses and it could be he feels overwhelmed by an overly-demonstrative relative (or that their cigarette smoke or perfume makes him ill).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:08 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think mothershock has it, and well, kids are weird. And they're people too - little people who are exploring and testing boundaries and reactions and preferences and free will. It's a lot to process with a limited vocabulary, and with only so much social development too.

And, to go along with what Rosie M. Banks is also right to mention, can you ask him? It was around that age that my daughter started withdrawing from my mother. In my daughter's words, essentially, "Grandma doesn't know 'No thank you'." So, while she didn't quite articulate it this way, she realized that she didn't always want to submit to my mom's sudden tickling/poking/face squeezing attacks (all loving, but solely for my mom's benefit, a little rough, and with no respect for my kid's moods or personal space); and because my mom didn't take her "Notankyooo" seriously, it was better to not engage at all than to risk the eventual transgressions on her physical being. Which, like I said, is hard for a three year old to get out.
posted by peagood at 5:40 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Your son may not like these people right now. I wouldn't push it, and I would tell your relation, including your ex, to stop act like children themselves and getting all bent out of shape about it. Your son has a right to not like someone, not hug or kiss someone, if he doesn't want to. I'm glad to hear that you don't push him on this, but the rest of your relation better cool it too, or else I'd limit my son's contact with them.

As long as your son is not rude to people by taunting or teasing or being nasty, simply saying he doesn't want hugs or kisses from people is totally fine. Adults need to respect this too, and you can stand up for him against these childish adults.

As for reasons, he may be having serious issues from your divorce. If you and your ex are very comfortable with each other and see each other, your son may want you to be together, or may not understand any of it and be confused and mad. If I may be bold, I'd add: if your ex is good enough for you to be around and good enough for your son to be around, perhaps you should consider getting back together, at the very least for your son's sake.
posted by minx at 5:49 PM on July 14, 2011

Have you asked him WHY he doesn't like them? Can he say why? If it's those specific people, they're all doing something that is setting him off. What do they all have in common behavior-wise?

At the very least, those people may just be really overly smothery with him and he's not big enough to stop them from doing it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:45 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Kids this age have a reason for what they're doing but it's often a reason that an adult would never imagine. In Selma Fraiberg's excellent book (which I highly recommend), The Magic Years, she tells story after story about kids being frightened of being sucked up by the vacuum cleaner, being flushed down the toilet or being drained down the pipe along with the bathwater.

One kid was inconsolable because he was told several weeks before the event that the whole family was flying to Europe for a vacation. The poor kid broke down because, though he had been trying to do it for that whole time, he still didn't know how to fly!

It would be great to find a way to have a conversation (drawings can be great for this) with him about why he feels the way he does about grandma or dad. And then listen very closely to what he says, because it may be something that makes very little sense. Take it very seriously nonetheless, and see if you and he can figure out a way to fix the problem. It'll probably be as big a relief to him as it will be to everyone else.
posted by jasper411 at 6:54 PM on July 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Some really awesome advice in this thread, especially about boundaries. Toddlers are not that dissimilar to cats; to both, grown people are big and scary and loud. Also, when people first enter rooms, they stare at them a lot, which is the oft-quoted reason for cats being drawn to the people that dislike cats...they're the only ones not giving them the big ol' goggle eye.

Definitely ask your child what's up, as that will most likely be the most fruitful method. But you can teach your family how to approach your kid so that the kid will be comfortable, if they're open to it. My trick is, when first meeting and/or greeting, squat down so we're on the same eye level (less intimidating), introduce myself and maybe compliment the kid's cool shirt/shoes/toy if they've got one ("You like Lightning McQueen? Me too!"), and then tell them what I'm going to be doing ("I'm going to talk to grandma now, but then I'm going to come over and we can play a fun game.") By the time I wander back around to them, they already know who I am and I've given them a little bit of a warning so they can get used to the idea of hangin' with the big person.
posted by lhall at 7:16 PM on July 14, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for these awesome answers. I feel sooo much better after having read them. Yes, I have asked him a few times, and I get answers like, "Well, mom, you know, I just don't like mammaw because she's bad" or "I just don't like daddy kisses; only mommy can kiss me. Daddy kisses are yucky." He never really addresses the why aspect of the question. I really don't think he knows why. I think it's just a feeling for him.

As some suggested, one of his grandmothers is very overwhelming and high energy, even for me. I didn't think of that as a factor, but it makes perfect sense. Another grandmother gets frustrated and put off easily and shows it. With his dad, it could definitely be emotions from the divorce. He is, like a lot of the other kids described here, a sensitive child who is strongly tuned in to emotion and also easily overwhelmed. So, I think its a combination of these factors and something he'll grow out of.

Thank you all for your input!
posted by mudlark at 7:55 PM on July 14, 2011

Response by poster: And I completely agree with most of you that the best tactic here is to talk to him about it and try and explain to everyone that it's not personal. Unfortunately, these particular family members have a really hard time accepting this answer and his dad and one of his grandmothers show their disapproval and frustration with his lack of affection in front of him after he refuses to kiss or hug them or whatever. I really dislike that they do this, but I can't seem to convince them that this may be adding to the problem and that their negativity is not good for him in general.

Any suggestions?
posted by mudlark at 8:01 PM on July 14, 2011

Both our boys went through a phase where they wouldn't give me (dad) kisses around 2-3yo. I turned it into a game where I would insist they shouldn't kiss me, I ran away, and when they did kiss me I hammed it up like it was gross. This got us both laughing. The affectionate kisses resumed shortly.
posted by sisquoc15 at 8:38 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I know you've already marked some best answers, but I'm going to suggest a slightly different answer based on what I know about kids who have lost parents. Basically, at your son's developmental level, he doesn't understand that he can love both you and his dad. He thinks that if he loves his dad, it means rejecting you. So he shows you all sorts of love and adoration and not so much to his dad because he's try to make sure you don't leave him like his dad did (I know his dad didn't leave him, but certainly it feels that way to your son). He tells you that he doesn't like these other folks because he's working very hard to make sure you know he is rejecting them in favor of you.

My experience with this as a parent is through adoption, not divorce. But I can tell you it's incredibly common for newly adopted kids to say horrible, terrible things about their first parents (no matter how much they loves their first parents, and no matter how wonderful and safe a home it was) in order to prove to their new family that they want to fit in. They don't understand that it's okay to love both families.

If your son has heard you say something not nice about his dad, he might be trying extra hard to ally with you against his dad, for fear of losing you too. He might feel guilty if he loves his dad.

Some things that might help: let him know you will always love him, no matter what. Let him know you will never, ever leave him (he could be truly scared that you will abandon him like he perceives his father did). Let him know it's okay to love his dad and his dad's family and that you will love him always. And please try very hard never to say anything negative or critical about his dad or his dad's family.

Your son might also be trying to punish his dad for leaving.

So my advice is a bit different than others. I might be off, but I know a lot of kids who have lost parents for one reason or another and exhibited very similar behavior, being overly affectionate with some and rejecting of others. It's often rooted in fear.

Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:40 PM on July 14, 2011 [10 favorites]

I've had minor success in talking with one particular relative about how we are deliberately and conciously teaching our daughter that she has absolute control over physical demonstrations of affection. That we are not going to teach her that she should hug/kiss someone so they don't feel bad. We talked about protective behaviors and while it was only hugs and kisses for one particular cousin, we didn't want to teach her that even though he accidentally hurt her, pushed her and made her feel unsafe and unhappy, she had to hug him to make him (and his mother) feel better. Connecting that with protective behaviors and disconnecting it from politeness or love or manners seems to have convinced the person in question to at least accept that my daughter is allowed to say 'no'.

It could be their politeness and respect, but either way she has stopped trying to force my daughter to hug and kiss against her will. And has stopped saying we need to teach her to bow to emotional blackmail for physical affection (phrased differently).
posted by geek anachronism at 8:52 PM on July 14, 2011

Response by poster: bluedaisy, your answer was very interesting. I have thought before that this seems like it could be some sort of showing of loyalty to me, maybe because he feels like he is supposed to for some reason, but I couldn't really tie it all together. Now that I've read your response I'm wondering again if this Is something more than a phase. He also seems to think that he has to take care of me, which I assure him that he does not and that it's my job to take care of him, and I take this as a sign of insecurity on his part as well.

Thanks so much for giving me more to think about.
posted by mudlark at 9:15 PM on July 14, 2011

I agree that little kids don't always understand loving more than one person. Our daughter used to say, "I only love Mommy!" She has finally transferred some affection to her dad, just the other day asking, "Daddy, remember when I didn't love you?" (No, we're not divorced or separated or anything.) She really did show love for him in her actions, she just never understood love the way we do, I guess, until lately.

As for what to say to the grandmas, that's hard, I know. Having grandparents play with my daughter one-on-one improved her reluctance. But if they insist on being huffy about it, they are just shooting themselves in the foot. Kids shy away from adults who are acting unpredictably. A grandma who acts like a grouchy kid instead of a level-headed adult trips their sensors and is off-putting. Is there a diplomatic way to point that out?
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:25 PM on July 14, 2011

With our three year old, it seems sometimes like he's working out boundaries/conditions of love, too. He has only done the rejection thing to people who are close relatives and thus not likely to actually leave or reject him in return. It seems related to his exploration of the boundaries of his world and experimentation with how much he has control over. He wants us to read him his bedtime story, not his uncle/babysitter. And there is a lot of remembering of promises. We DO always come back and give him the hugs we promised, so it all works out, even though his life was disrupted in a way he didn't prefer. He's also starting to do the playing one parent against the other thing even though it seems really young. So one parent says no, he tries the other. Testing everything!

And yeah, "love" is an interesting word to a 3 yr old. He "loves" and "doesn't love" about 20 things a day. The personal rejections are the only ones that seems to stick with people. He will say stuff like "I love brushing my teeth. I don't love brushing my teeth. I don't like it, Mama. I brush my teeth good." I don't know how to begin to interpret that.
posted by pekala at 10:10 PM on July 14, 2011

I have memories of being forced to kiss relatives as a child, and I remember hating having to kiss some of them because they kissed wetly, ugh!, and others because they were wearing heavy winter coats and such and I felt smothered, and some didn't smell good - they smoked cigars or wore too much strong "grandma" perfume, etc. So it could be a combination of reasons. Oh, and sometimes I just got sick of being asked to kiss 37 different relatives that I didn't feel I knew that well. I only felt comfortable being affectionate with people who lived in my house with me, so everyone else was a strain.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:46 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Remember, too, that there are very very few things a three year old can control. And he's found - probably very much by accident - something that he can. And it gets attention and interesting interactions. I don't say this in a budding evil mastermind way, just that - kids aren't in charge much. And when they stumble on something where they are, they can have a hard time dealing with it. My (twenty years younger) cousin went through something much like this when she was around preschool age - she wouldn't talk to people who called her on the phone when she had done so just a short time before. It got her lots of attention, and to me, it showed that she was that confident of how unconditionally she was loved that she didn't have to be nice to us ;) it bothered her grandma (my mom) a lot, and she tried to bargain and cajole and entice. Surprise, surprise, it didn't work. Ignoring it did, finally.

Lots of really good advice here:) All I can add is to make sure your son knows you think your ex is a good dad, and you're glad he is there for your son. I think not forcing him to give physical affection is so smart, and good for you for doing that.
posted by lemniskate at 4:52 AM on July 15, 2011

The grown ups should grow up and stop making a fuss about not getting the attention they want from your child. If they calm down he might respond by warming up to them.
posted by Scram at 5:26 AM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Nthing that it may be his way of having some emotional control and power over others in a situation that is scary and confusing and has the power over his emotions. Maybe his dad can umderstand it if it is explained that way?
Also, he needs to tell his son, every time, calmly: "I know and it's okay. I love you and will always come visit you. Even when you don't love me."
posted by Omnomnom at 5:58 AM on July 15, 2011

Could you encourage your son to develop some dad/grandma specific ways of showing affection that he does feel comfortable with? Like a special handshake that he only does with daddy? My nephew does a complicated fist bump thing with one of his uncles, and loves to correct people other than his uncle who try to fist bump with him - "No, only Uncle K can do dis!"

If the adults are bound and determined that only kisses and hugs are acceptable, this won't work, but if they are willing to accept alternate demonstrations of love from your son, then perhaps it would. Good luck!
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 8:48 AM on July 15, 2011

When I was around this age my Dad traveled a lot for business. My Mom said that every single time he came home I would be really angry with him. Who knows if it was because I felt like he was a stranger, or if it was because I felt like his leaving was something that showed the world wasn't all about me, or what, but he didn't help things by trying to tease me back into good humor when he did get home. I was angry and I was serious about it, and he wouldn't listen! So this sounds pretty normal to me.
posted by MsMolly at 8:58 AM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ah, lemniskate beat me to it. "I began to get on to him about it" -- yeah, that might just egg it on. Hard as it is to avoid. The only problems I have had with my three-year-old came from things I have not been able to drop; at this point, our sole argument is over the issue of toothbrushing. Mummy has made a great big deal out of it; consequently, Mummy is in for a lot of pushback until she can find a way to dial down the importance while still getting the teeth cleaned somehow.

The only other thing that comes to mind is my own grandparents' "wine kisses" -- cigarette smokers and postprandial imbibers all -- not so appealing sometimes. Also +1 Rosie M. Banks and MexicanYenta.
posted by kmennie at 6:48 PM on July 15, 2011

I think it would be worthwhile to spend some more time in discussion with your child about his specific objections to these family members. I don't want to be alarmist, but I think it's important to completely rule out any harmful or inappropriate treatment that could be going on while he's in their care. (The comment about grandma being "bad" sort of sent off red flags for me). His coldness toward these people could be arbitrary, or it could be his way of telling you that something's really not okay. Ask non-threatening questions and spend a lot of time listening to what he says. Again, it could be nothing, but if something serious is going on, vigilant conversation could mean a great deal.
posted by delight at 1:39 AM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

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