Local experts say ‘forced affection,’ common during holidays, can negatively impact kids

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The holidays are prime time for gestures of affection that could be a problem for kids.

Go hug Aunt Sue. Give Grandpa a kiss. Go sit on Santa's lap.

A lot of parents have probably said these and other similar statements to their children at some point. It usually ramps up during the holidays when we gather with relatives we might not see often.

But health professionals say this "forced affection" with anyone can really have a negative impact on little ones. Jennifer Keller-McDaniel, chief psychologist at Truman Medical Center's Lakewood Counseling, and other experts say it can cause damage to a child's perception of boundaries.

"I think we need to kind of take things slowly," Keller-McDaniel said. "I think it moves pretty quickly when you haven't seen a relative -- or never if we're talking about toddlers -- and then they want to kiss and hug all over you. I think it makes them pretty uncomfortable."

That's certainly true at times for little Evelyn Matthews.

"Sometimes there is the person that she doesn't want to go close to and that sort of thing, and usually it takes a little bit of time to be around them and warm up and get used to them," her dad Chris Matthews said.

Part of this could be generational. Keller-McDaniel said we talk a lot more now about mental health and issues like consent.

"We set up, particularly little girls, for issues with consent when we confuse them early on with, to please someone that you care about, that you have to do something that makes you uncomfortable," she said.

She said the same rules also apply to Santa visits -- though little Evelyn didn't need any warm-up time when she met Old St. Nick on Tuesday at Oak Park Mall.

"I think if the child wants to, I think that's great," Keller-McDaniel said. "I think they should offer some other opportunities just to not make it like a super scary experience, simply for a photo."

So what should you do instead? Experts suggest things like high fives, fist bumps and cool handshakes -- all different ways to show affection without making a child uncomfortable.

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