How to address a touchy-feely friend?
February 24, 2014 10:56 AM   Subscribe

We have a close family friend who seems to have a problem keeping his hands to himself around my 8-year-old. We've spoken to him about it generally, but he doesn't seem to understand what we consider to be inappropriate.

I admit that I may have higher standards than most with regards to touching children. Unless you're the parent, I don't think you should touch a child (including hugging) without their permission. I don't think tickling is ever appropriate (because most kids actually hate it but can't usually articulate that, especially when they're being tickled). There may be exceptions to this once you get to know a child really well, but this is sort of baseline.

So we've recently moved closer to some old friends of my husband's, whom I also really like. We visit maybe once a month or so. I noticed the first time that he would pull my daughter in for a big hug, sort of like a jolly old uncle, but she's only met him once before. I could see that she was uncomfortable, but she didn't say anything. I asked my husband to talk to his friend about asking before he gives hugs and the like. He came to visit this week-end, and he hugged and gave kisses on the head without asking, and tickled, and was touchy-feely in a way that I think is really inappropriate. He doesn't seem to notice that my daughter doesn't like it, which I think is critical in developing a relationship with a kid that involves touching.

The guy has his own kids, who adore him. They probably don't mind the tickles and hugs and whatnot. He's about 40, which I think is too young for the oblivious touching of children. He does NOT do any of this with adults. We hug hello and good-bye but other than this he does not touch me or my husband much.

I don't know what else to do now. I don't want to visit with him again until we've talked about it, but the first chat apparently didn't sink in. I admit that when it happens I don't say anything, mostly because I would feel mortified if someone pointed out that their kid didn't like me touching them. There's probably a more neutral way to put it, but I'm struggling with the "script". One thing I would like is for my daughter to see me talk directly to him about his touching. I feel like a coward for not saying something in that moment, and there have been other times that I wish I had spoken up for her when I could see that she didn't like some well-meaning person's touching. Any advice on the problem in general or tips for speaking up in the moment are much appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
1) talk to your kid too! Ask her how she felt about the touching and let her know that her feelings were ok to have and that you and dad are a safe place to go when she doesn't like how someone touches her.

2) I would advocate being really blunt ("don't hug or tickle our daughter unless she initiates the contact") and if he reacts badly, cut the line and sail away. She's your daughter, and her safety now and in the future is the first priority. She has to know, really deep down, that it's her body and she controls who touches it.

3) if he says ok and then reneges the next time he sees her, pack up and leave, end of friendship for the forseeable future.

This is really tough! Good luck.
posted by kavasa at 11:06 AM on February 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

FWIW, I was freaked out by huggy, smoochy relatives when I was a kid, but in retrospect it's obvious to me that the main reason I was unsettled by it was that it was so different from what I experienced at home. My mom, while very loving, was not very touchy. A squeeze of the hand was a big deal when I was little! But I don't believe the touching that so unsettled me did me any harm at all, and I suspect I'd have been worse off if my parents had forbidden it or made a big deal out of it. When I got older I began to crave the touch of other people, and didn't know enough about how to get it. I realize this doesn't directly help you with your question, but I think it might be a subtler issue than you realize.
posted by jon1270 at 11:07 AM on February 24, 2014 [33 favorites]

If it were simply a pat on the shoulder or on the head, I would be more subtle about taking him aside and saying "no touching at all unless kiddo says (STATES OUT LOUD) that it's ok".


Tickling, kisses and hugs when she was obviously uncomfortable - and believe me, he noticed - absolutely not. The next time you go over, you can go into the house first and let him know he will not touch your daughter, except to offer his hand to shake. And if she doesn't want to shake hands, he drops it and backs off. If he gets angry or offended, so freaking what. He's an adult, he'll get over it.

Please, please stand up for your daughter. A result of you not speaking up is that she is learning it's ok for adults to touch her in a way that makes her uncomfortable and that she does not have control over her own body.

Adults, male or female, family or friends, do not have any right to force affection onto a child in a physical way. Every adult (yes, including Mom and Dad) should check if the child wants a hug or a kiss or whatever.
posted by lootie777 at 11:20 AM on February 24, 2014 [29 favorites]

Here is what I have done when other adults have been doing something my young children seemed to me to not like, like hugging:

Me, to kid: "Do you want a hug?" or, if I think they need a bit of leading, "Would you prefer it if Big Hairy Stranger stopped hugging you?"

Kid responds.

Me to BHS: "She's not in the mood for a hug right now. Kid, would you like to give BHS a high-five [or: would you like to wave to BHS, or would you like to show BHS your stuffed duck? or whatever]?"

Kid says yes, stuffed duck is shown, and so on.

Kid says no, I say: "I guess she's not in the mood for high-fives just now!" And then whatever further subject-changing conversation is appropriate depending on how well I know the person. "Have a nice day!" or "Let's go check on dinner," or "Kid, why don't you go finish that Lego you were working on while BHS and I talk," and so on.

Sometimes you have to be more firm than that, though, or be really pro-active. If you see the friend moving toward your daughter, you can pop in and initiate that conversation before touching starts: "Do you want a hug? Do you want to be tickled?" or whatever.

I tell my kids and their friends over and over, "It's only fun if everybody's having fun." If they're playing a rough game and I'm not sure, I'll check in and say, "Is everybody OK with this?" You can do this with a grownup and a kid, too. There's a tickle game going on you suspect your daughter isn't actually enjoying: "Stop a second everybody! Hold still! I can't tell if I'm hearing happy shrieks or let-me-go shrieks!" Proceed according to the info you get, reiterating, "Thanks for checking in with me! Remember, it's only fun if everybody's having fun."
posted by not that girl at 11:20 AM on February 24, 2014 [54 favorites]

Some good advice I got here previously was to teach your daughter a substitute form of interaction for any inappropriately touchy situation, then actively support her in making that substitution. So when they meet and he goes in for the hug, she steps back and holds out her hand for a shake, you say, "Now that she's a bit older, we're practicing saying "hi" like grownups do." He starts to tickle her, she steps back and walks over to you, you say, "Do you mind not rough-housing? We're working with her on knowing how to set physical boundaries." Thus, whether the friend has ill intent with all of this or not, he gets forcibly recruited to help with a lesson in not touching, and it makes it much harder for him to get physical without seeming like a dick.
posted by Bardolph at 11:22 AM on February 24, 2014 [23 favorites]

Agree with kavasa that you should talk to your daughter and let her know it's OK if she felt uncomfortable, and that it's OK to say so - to you or to him. Start teaching her now that she is in control of her body, including who touches it, and when, and how.

You may want to have another conversation with this guy in more pointed terms:
"My daughter enjoys closer contact at home, but does not feel comfortable being hugged, kissed, or tickled by non-family members, and that's OK. Since we don't see each other often enough for her to feel as comfortable with you as she would with us at home, please hold back on [these behaviors]." Then suggest other ways of greeting, such as a high-five or a really cheesy (not creepy) wink with pistol finger/thumb action.

This way, you're making him aware that it's not simply your preference, but actually your daughter's too, and not blaming him or implying that he's anything less than on the up and up (because people can get really defensive when the topic of children and touching comes up). You are also providing an alternative, and preferable, method of interaction that limits touching and would make your daughter feel more at ease.
posted by trivia genius at 11:22 AM on February 24, 2014

If the guy is truly doing something untoward, you need to not have him come around anymore.

However, I suspect this is just a difference in parenting/child-interaction philosophy. I totally get where you're coming from, and a number of friends are raising their children in a similar manner ("you don't have to hug grandma if you don't want to"). However, this is not a universal thing, and hugging/kissing/tickling children is not, to many people, an inherently sexual or inappropriate thing. Many adults are really just awkward in interacting with children, especially around her age, where you don't really do things like give them raspberries on their tummy to make them laugh but you don't know how to engage in a real conversation with them. So you find this middle ground of tickling, or chasing, or roughhousing, or another physical thing.

You have a right to enforce how people interact with your young children. Absolutely. However, being too forceful with this issue may cause this guy to not want to hang out anymore. He may be offended at the suggestion that he's doing something inappropriate, may just think you guys are weird, or may decide that it's not worth the risk of being around you and being accused of something more serious (since it is clear that the boundary for inappropriate touching that you've taught your daughter is not necessarily where the commonly accepted boundary is in the general community). If you're fine with that, then by all means bring it up.

I would not do it in front of your daughter though. I would talk to her more about empowering herself to push away or say no. That you don't think it is rude to do that, and that you will back her up. The guy is, in my opinion, much more likely to listen to her telling him to stop (in a firm, not playing, voice), than to you. She will also learn an important lesson about establishing her own boundaries, determining when she feels uncomfortable, and feeling confident to speak up for herself in an authoritative voice when those boundaries are crossed.
posted by melissasaurus at 11:24 AM on February 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

How hard is it to say "she really doesn't like that, unless it's from her parents, can you please stop or we won't be able to visit anymore". It's important for your daughter to not be in situations like these that she may not understand but strongly dislike. she's more important here than your husband's friends. Tell her repeatedly, assuredly, confidently, and with love that she can always talk to you "the parents" no matter what if she's scared, uncomfortable, or doesn't understand a situation with anyone and that you will always love her no matter what if she does. She has to know it's ok for her to trust you and you will be on her side. So be on her side.
posted by lunastellasol at 11:25 AM on February 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

I want to highlight, though, that it's really OK to prepare adults in advance for what your kid is and isn't comfortable with. I had one kid (I still have him, he's just not in this stage anymore) that we absolutely did not force food on, so, for instance, if I was leaving him at a friend's for a meal, I'd say, "We're working with Picky Kid to expand his food repertoire, and what works best is to offer him everything, don't make a big deal of it if he says no, and don't give him a lot of attention or try to find something else he wants if he doesn't want what you're serving." It's also really common in my circle for folks to say things like, "Millie takes a while to warm up so give her some space at first and she'll eventually come to you," and so on.

You don't have corner the guy and tell him he's been being terribly inappropriate and you'll kneecap him if it doesn't stop. But, as lootie777 said, you totally can have a chat with him before he gets into the room with your daughter to make it clear that there's no touching without asking first, and if someone says stop, it has to stop right away, and that it's best to err on the side of stopping if you think a child is uncomfortable.
posted by not that girl at 11:26 AM on February 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

To me, coming from a culture where kids are routinely hugged, tickled and get their cheeks pinched, what he's doing doesn't sound out of line or out of the ordinary - on the contrary, it makes me sad that you think of it as being really inappropriate.

However, my own daughter, who is 8, doesn't like physical contact with non-family members, even to the point of not wanting to high-five her female gymnastics coach, so if your kid is like that I understand you feel the need to step in and say something. I would just try to be really diplomatic about it, because I do think this is a cultural difference between your family and his, rather than anything more sinister.
posted by Dragonness at 11:31 AM on February 24, 2014 [16 favorites]

not that girl has got a great script there.

I agree with you that it's important for your child to see you advocating for her, so that she learns to advocate for herself. She has to know that it's okay for her to state her boundaries to anyone.

I don't think I would take the trouble to talk to the friend without the child again. You've done that, and it obviously did not make an impact.

I would have a conversation with my child that it's okay to say no, and then at the next visit if I saw the friend touch the child again - if she still didn't say anything I would step right in "George, Peggy really doesn't like to be touched without her permission." If he persists or teases her, I would make it clear that her boundaries are valid "George - her boundaries are her own, if she doesn't want to be touched, she doesn't want to be touched." I hate it when people try to override our boundaries by acting like it's somehow our fault.

I don't think you have the obligation to make an adult feel comfortable, or not embarrased, at the expense of a child who is less able to defend themself.
posted by vignettist at 11:39 AM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

If your husband said something and this guy ignored it, then I would simply stop putting your daughter in contact with him. It's not hard or complicated to listen to such a simple request.

I say this because twice, you and your husband have not said anything, and I kinda doubt you will next time.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:40 AM on February 24, 2014 [12 favorites]

I have an 8 year-old daughter and in this situation I would definitely have difficulty assuming positive intent. It's hard to believe the gentleman here is truly oblivious to your daughter's discomfort and how inappropriate the behavior is.

The behavior reads, to me, as conditioning/grooming behavior and should be confronted, regardless of whether it is intentional or accidental.

A simple, "[Child] is not comfortable with all that attention and neither am I," should be enough. A protestation of 'innocence' can be dealt with by a simple, "Thank you for understanding." A good parent and friend will understand and let it go at that.
posted by valentinepig at 11:46 AM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

For the USA, this friend is acting in a culturally accepted manner regarding his interaction with children, and he assumes your family falls within those cultural norms, which is why he doesn't understand what you consider to be inappropriate. So the onus is on you to say, "LittleAnon isn't comfortable by adults hugging and tickling her, outside of her parents. How about a handshake?"
posted by deanc at 12:13 PM on February 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

To follow up, the real problem here is you don't know if he's being a creep and grooming her for abuse, or if he's just a clueless adult.

I worked at a daycare for children from the ages of infant to 5 years old. And I'll never forget a little boy who had days where he just didn't want to be hugged. I always asked him if I could hug and if he said no, I then asked him if I could give him a hand shake. And if he said no to that, I would wave at him (which made him laugh everytime).

An older lady who worked at the daycare was really annoyed with me for not just grabbing the kid and hugging him. Which she did, even if the child protested. So one day, during a staff meeting, I asked her to imagine hugging an adult that way and have them push and squirm and shout "no", and then continue to do it against their wishes. She was pretty shocked, and kind of pissed at me for making her feel bad.

An adult that gets angry about not being allowed to give a child physical affection in spite of being warned off by a parent or the child means one of two things:

They are an abuser who has been cut off from their potential victim and angry that their inappropriate behavior has been called out.

Or they are an adult that is going to exert power over someone smaller and unprotected, for their own selfish satisfaction.

There is nothing ok about either of those scenarios.
posted by lootie777 at 12:13 PM on February 24, 2014 [25 favorites]

it makes me sad that you think of it as being really inappropriate.

What makes it inappropriate -- really inappropriate -- is that the girl doesn't like it. Doesn't matter what kind of culture the fellow came up in.

Lots of good advice here. As a graying childless fellow who loves kids, and loves to hug and play, I would be mortified to think that I had not picked up on a kid's discomfort, and not stood back. And I would be totally respectful and apologetic to a parent who pointed it out.

As regards who delivers the message .. yes, no doubt it would have power coming from the girl. But she's 8, and it seems a bit much to force that obligation on her.
posted by LonnieK at 12:18 PM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's not super clear that the first conversation happened, or how it happened. Can you be involved with the second conversation? I would not do it with your daughter in the room because I can imagine nothing more embarrassing than that conversation from her perspective.

In situations like that, as a somewhat non-touchy kid, I usually put a parent between myself and the person I dreaded a tickle from. Can you help this guy maintain a possibly-unnatural-to-him boundary by keeping the two of them at a physical distance or by placing yourself between them? They shouldn't be sitting next to each other for the next few visits until he can show that he's respecting the boundary you're drawing.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:22 PM on February 24, 2014

An adult's need or desire to touch a child in any way, be it hugging, high-fives, handshakes, whatever, NEVER TRUMPS the need of a child to not be touched. If your child does not want to be touched by this person, her boundaries must validated and enforced no matter what.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:22 PM on February 24, 2014 [10 favorites]

> What makes it inappropriate -- really inappropriate -- is that the girl doesn't like it.

I agree 100%. But the OP seems to imply this is generally really inappropriate behaviour, so I wanted to point out it isn't to everyone.
posted by Dragonness at 12:35 PM on February 24, 2014 [17 favorites]

Empower your daughter to speak up if she's uncomfortable with touch. Give her the language and stand up for her when she does it.

"No thank you! I don't want to hug you!" Practice it with her, assure her it's okay for her to say it to ANYONE at ANY TIME!

Also, as you're walking through the door, before the hugs and kisses get started, say to "Uncle Smoochy", "Smooch, I know you mean well, but Alicia is at the stage where she's uncomfortable with touch, so please don't make a big deal about hugging and kissing her."

Once you say it, that should be the end of it. You don't have to make him feel like a jerk for not noticing, or like a pervert for doing it, just let him know that she's uncomfortable.

I'm sort of sorry that folks in our lives can't be physically affectionate with the kids in our lives. Hugs are awesome, but if you're uncomfortable, then go with that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:38 PM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

In contrast to deanc, I live in a relatively high-touch region of the US and it is not normally observed that unrelated adults will kiss, tickle and hug elementary-aged children.
posted by winna at 12:39 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

As an addendum to my comment I'm not saying anything is necessarily wrong about mister touchy, just that it's not completely unremarkable.
posted by winna at 12:45 PM on February 24, 2014

The OP's argument that most kids actually hate to be tickled may be a factor on the comments that are being misunderstood.

The idea that Tickling is never okay is a different standard. The fact that tickling is considered normal is exactly why it's a trick perves can use - it looks innocent.

I don't think anyone is saying friend can do anything he wants to daughter. The point of those answers seems to be that if you're asking friend to not do something everyone else is okay with, you need to be very clear that you have your own rules for your child.

And make sure your husband is on board 100%. You need his full support.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:53 PM on February 24, 2014

He's about 40, which I think is too young for the oblivious touching of children.
Ok, given what you are worrying about this is wrong-headed. Pervy people don't change with age.

Having said that, I think you need to have some regard to this guy's feelings. 'So-and-so doesn't like to be touched, please don't touch her,' is a very different thing to say than 'I'm suspicious of the way you're touching my daughter.' I don't think anything could be more devastating and hurtful and damaging to a family man than such an insinuation and you had better be pretty sure of your ground before you hint at such - if there is any possibility you will be understood to have said the latter in the circumstances you describe, IMO you had better rethink.

People have different conventions and styles of affection, some people do hate to be touched (I am one), just explain it. not that girl's script is excellent. No need to overthink this. But please do not in any way get involved in an oblique insinuation of wrong-doing over behaviour many - most - people around you think is perfectly acceptable.
posted by glasseyes at 1:56 PM on February 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

I asked my husband to talk to his friend about asking before he gives hugs and the like.

Did you verify with your husband that he had this conversation with this guy? What did your husband say about how it went?

It's possible (and IMO, not improbable) that:

1. This guy likes kids in a non-pervy way, and tries to be friendly with the kids in his life;
2. This guy tends to be less reserved than you are when it comes to physical contact, like high-fives, hugs, etc. with his friends, and
3. Your child (who takes cues from her parents, like all children) looks like she is uncomfortable with it because you are uncomfortable with it.

If your husband simply made a passing comment to this guy, then the issue might not have really popped up on his radar, and therefore he might not have made any effort to change his non-pervy ways when trying to be buddies with your kid. From my read of it, this might not be any big deal. That said, you know your daughter best, and being cautious is a good thing, especially when it comes to touching between adults and children.

I would verify with your husband how the conversation went with this guy, then ask your daughter about how she feels about it (using open-ended/non-leading questions), and act accordingly.
posted by hootenatty at 4:20 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

please do not in any way get involved in an oblique insinuation of wrong-doing over behaviour many - most - people around you think is perfectly acceptable.

I typed out and deleted at least six different attempts at an answer to this question today, which is just as well, because glasseyes said it much better than I could.
posted by ook at 5:47 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

This guy isn't the kid's beloved grandpa; OP says the kid had only met him once before he started getting all huggy. That's not an appropriate level of acquaintance to start being so physical with anyone. I'm in the southern US, and hug friends and close acquaintances (like neighbors) routinely as a form of greeting, but this guy's behavior seems inappropriate to me.

He just doesn't know this kid that well, and is pushing past her resistance to have a physical interaction with her. That doesn't mean anything nefarious is going on with him. A lot of people just perceive kids as sort of sub-human or assume it is ok to override their reasonable boundaries (as lootie777's story points out). This attitude is so pervasive that a lot of people will think you're being weird, paranoid, or overprotective when you're really just ensuring that others treat your child like a person.

So -

Giving her some options for advocating for herself is good, and you can also just step in and call a halt to what is going on in the moment.
posted by jeoc at 6:49 PM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

For the USA, this friend is acting in a culturally accepted manner regarding his interaction with children, and he assumes your family falls within those cultural norms, which is why he doesn't understand what you consider to be inappropriate.

Uh, no, I disagree. I wouldn't like any other adults doing that to my daughter and would consider it inappropriate and frankly a bit bizarre. And what I might say to them is something like "Um, daughter is not 4 anymore, hello?" or something similar that is not mean but is firm and clear.
posted by Dansaman at 8:57 PM on February 24, 2014

The sort of very sincere conversation about how you allow your child to be touched may be perceived as accusatory. Why not stop the action as it happens in a calm way? Guy, Child doesn't like tickling much, please stop. If he says, Come give us a hug, or swoops in, Whoops Guy, we have pretty strong boundaries about asking for hugs, etc. Your boundaries are perfectly reasonable, and you seem to think he's just got a different physical approach, so a calm, even smiley, response combined with stopping the behavior may preserve everyone's good nature.

An awful lot of small and large people genuinely hate tickling, and an awful lot of people still do it, and sometimes it approaches bullying, and sometimes some kids like it.
posted by theora55 at 9:25 PM on February 24, 2014

It's totally appropriate to say to your family friend: "Look, she's uncomfortable with touching from people she hasn't known all her life. We are perfectly happy with this. Please give her her space and she'll let you know when she wants a hug."

And then to cut him off on the spot if he fails to comply. "Daughter is not into it. Please stop."

He's an adult. He needs to be responsible and accept your authority in determining how he interacts with your daughter. If he can't accept this, he can't be around your daughter.
posted by rocketpup at 8:38 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

You noted that he has kids, and all I could think is that he has a natural way of interacting with them that he carries over to your kid -- probably, the opposite of what some have said, he couldn't really imagine anybody reacting badly, let alone has picked up that your kid is. He just thinks it's affectionate and maybe that she'll warm up into it.

That said, a word is fine, but definitely couch it as your having a shy (or whatever label fits better) kid who prefers friendly hellos to hugs, rather than that his touch is inappropriate, which it honestly doesn't sound. Trust your instincts, defend your kid, but try not to be judgemental along the way.
posted by acm at 10:27 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

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