I was reading a story to my then two-year-old grandson, Sebastian, when without warning he grabbed my face in his hands and started kissing me over and over. My daughter-in-law looked up, laughing, and said, “Are you kissing Grandma?” He stopped for a second and said, “I just loves her so much,” and continued with the enthusiastic smooches.
We thought it was sweet. But sometimes parents are uncomfortable when their toddlers lavish this kind of physical affection on them, especially when they give long, lingering kisses on the lips or pat an adult on the bum in what looks like a sexual way.
Learning how to show love Christina Rinaldi, a child psychologist and associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says these loving actions are quite normal among this age group: Toddlers often don’t have the vocabulary to express how they’re feeling, so their emotions tend to come out in physical ways. For example, when they’re angry, they might bite or hit; when they’re feeling loving, they kiss, cuddle and hug.
Rinaldi adds: “Toddlers are generally great at giving and receiving affection. They’re also at a stage when they are imitating things they see at home or in other places—like on TV. They’re learning about how people show love to other people.”
Toddlers see their mom and dad or other adults expressing their feelings by kissing and touching each other, sometimes in suggestive ways, Rinaldi adds, and it’s not surprising that they’d imitate this.
So should you do anything about this behaviour? “It’s not a problem unless you make it one,” says Rinaldi. “I wouldn’t be concerned about it. If your toddler gives you a big sloppy kiss, simply say to her, ‘Mommy loves you too,’ and hug her back — even if she’s totally covered in jam and what you really feel like saying is: ‘That was gross.’”
As your toddler gets older and is better able to understand your explanations, you can begin to talk about the different kinds of relationships and the different ways people show affection to one another. “You have to remember that a toddler’s boundaries are not the same as with older children,” Rinaldi says. “They are still having their diapers changed by adults, so it’s hard to really convey the idea of a ‘private’ body part. But they can begin to understand that this kind of kissing is what adults do when they love each other, and moms and kids hug each other this way.”
Is an increase in affectionate behaviour a sign of insecurity? No, says Rinaldi, unless it’s part of a larger change in behaviours. “It’s more likely the child has seen something that they have decided to imitate,” she says. “That’s part of being a toddler — being curious and trying out the things she sees.”
What about the germs? And finally, what about the germs? If your toddler is enthusiastically kissing every child in his daycare group, are you risking having him constantly sick?
“These are toddlers we’re talking about!” says Rinaldi. “They are licking toys, hugging each other, getting dirty and, yes, spreading germs. I don’t think that the kissing is actually likely to increase the risk.”
Rinaldi’s final word: Relax and enjoy this loving stage. It won’t last forever.
Respecting boundaries Child psychologist Christina Rinaldi points out that we often give toddlers mixed messages about touching and affection. We expect them to submit to hugs and kisses from Aunt Bertha, who visits rarely and feels like a stranger to them, yet want them to stop smothering their little brother with enthusiastic kisses because he protests. Toddlers can better learn to respect the boundaries of others, Rinaldi says, if we respect theirs. So if Mom wants a kiss goodbye in the morning, but little Kiera isn’t in the mood, accept her “no” and say something like “That’s OK. Maybe you’ll feel like a hug when I get home.”
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