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"My Daughter Doesn't Show Affection"

Q. My 16-month-old doesn't like to be smothered by our very affectionate out-of-town relatives. In fact, when they go to kiss her, she turns her head and runs away. With the holidays approaching, I'm worried that she'll insult someone who tries to kiss her. How can I teach her to be polite while respecting her need for space?

A. The fact is that toddlers don't understand and are not bound by grown-up social dos and don'ts. Your daughter is just openly expressing her feelings in exactly the way 16-month-olds do -- without worrying about the other person's feelings. But while her behavior is quite normal, it can make for some sticky situations with visiting relatives.

What Can I Do?

Before their next visit, make a photo book of the relatives she'll be seeing and look at it often, telling her about each person. Being more familiar with them may help her feel more comfortable when they arrive. Then, either before their visit or upon their arrival, remind your relatives that your daughter simply doesn't like hugs and kisses right away, and that she needs to get used to being around them again. It's not personal, it's just who she is. Suggest that they take some time to play with her, perhaps engaging her with a favorite toy or book. Encourage them to follow her lead. This will make her feel safe and help her build a strong relationship with them over time.

Remember that children look to their parents for cues about new situations and new people. So let your daughter see you give your relatives a big hug and kiss. This lets her know that you love and trust them, and she can too. Eventually, she might surprise you by automatically offering her cheek for a kiss when your relatives stop by.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit that promotes the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, December 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.