Q: My 17-month-old is a little shy and doesn’t like to be “smothered” by our very affectionate out-of-town relatives. In fact, when they go to kiss her she turns her head and runs away. With the holidays approaching, I'm worried that she'll insult someone who tries to kiss her. How can I teach her to be polite while respecting her need for space?
A: The fact is that toddlers don’t understand and are not bound by grown-up do’s and don’ts. Your daughter is just openly expressing her feelings in exactly the way 17-month-olds do—without worrying about the other person’s feelings. But while her behavior is quite normal, it can make for some sticky situations with visiting relatives.
What can you do? Before their next visit, make a photo book of the relatives she’ll be seeing and look at it often, telling her about each person. Being more familiar with them may help her feel more comfortable when they arrive. Then, either before their visit or upon their arrival, remind your relatives that your daughter simply doesn’t like hugs and kisses right away; that she needs to get used to being around them again. It’s not personal, it’s just who she is. Suggest that they take some time to play with her, perhaps engaging her with a favorite toy or book. Encourage them to follow her lead and take things at her pace. This will make her feel safe and help her build a strong relationship with them over time. And remember that children look to their parents for clues to understand new situations and new people. So give your relatives a big hug and kiss. This lets your daughter know they are loved and trusted by you. And when you normalize her behavior and don’t make a big deal over it, chances are, no one else will either.