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Home / Health & Science

What happens when your children fear relatives and strangers?

Health & ScienceBy Rosa Agutu | Mon,Dec 27 2021 07:30:00 UTC | 4 min read

 

Elimu House Primary School's Louis Ocholla and Emmanuel Mumo of St Bakhita School during The Nairobi regional junior chess championship at Sarit centre on November 20, 2021. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

This is the season when most parents and guardians meet more relatives than any other time of the year. Those with children their aunties have not seen are proud when they’re held, kissed and spoken to in mother tongue despite the blank stares the young ones shoot back, especially if they are from the city.

Grandmothers also demand to hold, recite tribal incantations while spitting saliva blessings on a child’s forehead.

But while most people love holding children, sometimes the same children are not so keen on the affection of relatives they are not familiar with.

This is one cause of endless embarrassment, especially if the reluctant child is refusing to be held by one of your parents. The situation is even worse for communities, like those in Central region, where ‘baby holding’ ceremonies are common.

This phenomenon is part of child development and happens when a child develops a healthy attachment to familiar people – like parents, siblings, the house help — and thus might react to strangers by crying or fussing, going quiet, looking fearful or hiding.

This fear lasts up to two years and parents and professional help should be sought if fear of strangers persists and especially if there is a family history of anxiety.

While some parents are known to issue threats to reluctant, belligerent brood, experts warn that forcing children to be held by unfamiliar hands sends a message which might later make them susceptible to sexual abuse.

Stacy Nafula, a stay at home mother of four, got into an exchange with her aunt for refusing to allow her daughter to hug her.

Stacy, 38, says that during her eldest daughter’s birthday, her house was full of relatives and friends. Her youngest daughter, who is five, refused to hug one of her aunties. The daughter offered a hand but the aunt insisted she wanted a hug, when Stacy noted the daughter was uncomfortable she intervened and asked the daughter if she would like to give a high five instead, that did not go well with the aunt.

“She told me I was not raising my daughter well, she should respect her elders and the hug was harmless,” recalled Stacy, adding the aunt made the situation worse as it degenerated into name calling.

Experts say that if you force a child to hug someone you have taken the power to say no from them, and that they have no control of their own body.

Counseling psychologist Jacque Gathu says this is why so many adults have issues while communicating boundaries.

“When you say no as a child you are told that you are being disrespectful then as an adult you struggle and wonder if I say no am I being disrespectful, am I standing up for myself, am I feeling safe here?”

Gathu adds that if your child tells you that they not comfortable, don’t force them, don’t push them, just trust them.

“They are not being disobedient, one of the things we need to accept as parents and caregivers is we need to be okay with our children saying no to us, because that will also help them to stand up for themselves,” she added while noting that some parents find it difficult to stand up for their children, say, when someone forces a hug.

Gathu says children live in a world where most of the it is other people who are calling the shot. Rarely do they have any say. The few times a child gets to say no are important, because you are teaching them communication skills, assertive skills, standing up for themselves, boundaries and autonomy.

“If a child feels safe around you, they will not be coerced to shake your hand, or give you a hug,” says Gathu, adding that allowing children to sit on the lap of strangers is wrong.  

Ann Chepkoech, a mother of three boys, sometimes finds it hard despite acknowledging that “sometimes my children are uncomfortable hugging strangers but I always tell them to hug so that we can go and do other things.”  

Experts advise parents to step in when a relative coerces children for hugs and kisses just because they brought your child gifts. Children, she says, should know they are in charge of their bodies.

However, fear of strangers might lead to social anxiety when the children grow older and professional advice should be sought if fear of strangers is intense, or if it doesn’t reduce even with familiar adults around.

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