Ask AF: How to Discourage Indiscriminate Affection

A mother who adopted from foster care seeks advice about discouraging her children from charming or hugging strangers— and how to respond to the adults who think the child is just 'being sweet.'

Q: We adopted three- and five-year-old daughters from foster care. As they heal from past trauma and settle into our family, the trickiest aspect has been how to handle their indiscriminate affection (showing off for or hugging teachers, family friends, even strangers). It seems like they used this as a survival tactic in the past—to get attention, a second helping of ice cream, and so on. Adults are often flattered that such an adorable child has taken a liking to them, and then judge me harshly when I discourage this behavior. What do to?

Members of respond:

“I can relate. My three-year-old is adorable and loves everyone. People get so flattered when she goes up to them and gives a big hug, not realizing she does that to everyone. I correct her, tell her, ‘We don’t hug strangers.’ If the stranger makes a comment or acts like I’m being mean or overreacting, I might respond, ‘She needs to learn stranger danger. We don’t know you, so it’s not appropriate.’ This usually makes them back off, but I’m sure they think I’m an ogre. But let them think what they want, we have to do what’s best for our kids. My daughter has been home for 18 months, and I am already seeing that behavior improve. Hang in there.”

“I totally get this! My daughter was a teen when I adopted her. I’ve seen her go through about 50 ‘mom’ fixations on various adult women in three years. These other women think I am cold, and that they are the only ones who understand her. But, as a therapist explained, the closer a traumatized child is to someone, the harder it is for them. My daughter does share a lot with me, but also pushes me away out of fear and anger at what she never had. If I give her space, though, she usually seeks me out.”

“I can’t specifically relate, but I just wanted to reaffirm that you should follow your gut as their parent. At the end of the day, other people don’t know your child or what happens once their trauma comes back—especially anyone who has not adopted. I have noticed this when I try to explain to my family and friends about being very careful with the movies and shows we expose our daughter to, because they could be triggers. They think I’m being silly.”



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