Is sib's affection out of line?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 23, 2012 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,
I'm feeling uncomfortable with the level of affection my 9 year-old son shows around his 7 year-old sister. Sometimes she will lay on top of him in a playful way and he hugs her quite lovingly with a big grin on his face. He makes noises of contentment and bliss like you might expect a husband and wife to do when they embrace.

He has always been this way - not just with her, but with us as well. I also observe him kissing her sometimes when he hugs, again making those sounds. His mannerisms remind me of an adult.

We are an affectionate family and I certainly don't mean to discourage closeness, but this makes me uncomfortable!

Thank you!
From: Ann, Buffalo, NY


Hi Ann,

This kind of expression of affection is usually associated with younger children. It's not surprising, for instance, that a 7-year-old would initiate it by crawling on the brother. It's a kind of instinctive need for affection that typically disappears in the latency years, as 8 and 9-year-olds become more aware of social norms. So it is somewhat unusual -- not off-the-chart worriesome -- in a 9-year-old.

Does your son have any social or behavioral issues that might make it a challenge for him to recognize those norms? What role models might he be imitating? Since you're describing an "adult nature" to his affect, have you considered that he has been exposed to sex scenes on screens? From a babysitter, maybe? At a playmate's house? From the older sibs of playmates?

No matter what, it's perfectly reasonable for you to put a lid on this by making the standard clear: "C'mon, get off each other. That's not the way sisters and brothers hug. If you want to show your brother or sister you love them, a standing-up hug is good, or a smack on the cheek." Keep your tone matter-of-fact. If that doesn't put an end to it, or you see anything else in addition, I would bounce it off your pediatrician.

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3 comments so far...
  1. "Norms" are not always desirable. For example, it is "normal" to leave infants alone in a crib, but it is emotionally painful for the infants. We tend to do what was done to us. We also have a cultural problem with others feeling pleasure because of our own lack of pleasure. Let the children govern their behavior. Since they both like it, leave them alone and deal with your feelings about it independently.

    Posted by Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. February 23, 12 10:20 PM
  1. LW, I'd follow Barbara's advice over the good Dr. up there. Sometimes what we think it normal is just that-normal. It's your job to set boundaries as a parent. The culture of our society says that we do not receive certain kinds of pleasure from our siblings. It has nothing to do with not having pleasure ourselves. What a bunch of hooey. Your son may very well be starting to explore what feels good in different places and that's fine, healthy and typical but his outlet cannot be his sister. That's what needs to be taught. I think it's perfectly desirable. Letting them 'govern their behavior" sounds irresponsible and could be a slippery slope.

    Posted by Linney February 24, 12 11:40 AM
  1. With all due respect, Dr. Goldman, taking care of an infant, not leaving an infant alone, is not the same as a 9-year-old boy pleasuring himself against his sister.

    Keeping an infant with you = good for the infant's well-being

    9-yr-old pleasuring himself with his sister = bad for both siblings

    Posted by LittleFilly February 25, 12 10:22 AM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. "Norms" are not always desirable. For example, it is "normal" to leave infants alone in a crib, but it is emotionally painful for the infants. We tend to do what was done to us. We also have a cultural problem with others feeling pleasure because of our own lack of pleasure. Let the children govern their behavior. Since they both like it, leave them alone and deal with your feelings about it independently.

    Posted by Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. February 23, 12 10:20 PM
  1. LW, I'd follow Barbara's advice over the good Dr. up there. Sometimes what we think it normal is just that-normal. It's your job to set boundaries as a parent. The culture of our society says that we do not receive certain kinds of pleasure from our siblings. It has nothing to do with not having pleasure ourselves. What a bunch of hooey. Your son may very well be starting to explore what feels good in different places and that's fine, healthy and typical but his outlet cannot be his sister. That's what needs to be taught. I think it's perfectly desirable. Letting them 'govern their behavior" sounds irresponsible and could be a slippery slope.

    Posted by Linney February 24, 12 11:40 AM
  1. With all due respect, Dr. Goldman, taking care of an infant, not leaving an infant alone, is not the same as a 9-year-old boy pleasuring himself against his sister.

    Keeping an infant with you = good for the infant's well-being

    9-yr-old pleasuring himself with his sister = bad for both siblings

    Posted by LittleFilly February 25, 12 10:22 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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