Here’s a great article on kids, relatives, and holidays, focussing on the issue of forcing “respect” and “affection.” Although I think teaching kids about boundaries and their right to say “No” to unwanted touch is important for all, it’s particularly important–and difficult–to think carefully and clearly about these issues with kids who have developmental differences.
Many people expect children to be available to be touched, hugged, kissed, and cuddled at will. Strangers will pat a child on the head or shoulder and expect the child to accept the touch without complaint–even to smile at the stranger. Relatives definitely expect a greeting and some sign of affection, and expect to be able to show their affection by touch. That was certainly true in my husband’s family–my mother-in-law simply refused to believe that our son did not like her tickling his toes or hugging or kissing him.
As the article I linked to suggests, it’s important to have conversations about expectations from visiting family before they arrive. Long before and repeatedly, if possible. The more resistant they are to the boundaries parents set–and the boundaries the child might set–the more you might consider whether the visit is really a good idea. Yes, families are important–but they can be important bad influences as well as good ones. If they’re intent on doing things the parents know are hard to impossible for their child to handle…then they’re no better than any other person, stranger or not, who won’t respect boundaries.
Respect is a two-way street. Kids learn real respect from adults who show real respect to them–they learn respect as an interpersonal skill by example. And that includes asking before touching, accepting that a child is not a toy to be played with as an adult pleases. What they learn from adults who grab them, muss their hair, insist on hugging or kissing when the child doesn’t want to is not respect or affection but that even in the family they aren’t safe.
Advocating for a child is just as important within the family as outside. Early on, I didn’t do enough of it–in part because my own background had not provided me with a good understanding of boundaries and my right to set them.