Sunday, March 3, 2013

When Your Kid Gets Love Bombed

copyright: Becky in Burma. Daughter at Shwedagon, 2012

As I'm finishing writing my forthcoming eBook about moving to Myanmar, expat parenting has been on my mind a lot. Specifically expat parenting in Myanmar.

One of the things that has come up for us is the amount of attention our six year old gets while living here. I'm biased, but I think she's pretty darn cute. She has dark blonde hair, fair skin, steely blue eyes, and a cute little button nose holding 25 freckles. (I count them.)

It seems a lot of people in Thailand and Myanmar think she's pretty cute, too, because it's not uncommon for her to receive quite a bit of affection and attention from strangers. Well meaning, friendly, smiling men and women approach her earnestly, greeting her, asking her name and how she is.  Commonly, someone will reach out and pinch her cheeks, rub her arm, or sneak a kiss on her cheek.

The first time we went to Thailand about a year ago, she received this attention often. I noticed it especially happened when she carried her American Girl Doll. (American Girl Dolls are very realistic looking.) Smiling brightly, random people quickly snapped photographs of her. My daughter didn't smile though. She'd hide behind me and scowl.

On our visit to the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda, F was inundated with attention. We noticed that if we stopped at all while making our circular rounds, within moments, crowds of people would gather around. Though people showed us their lovely smiles, it was incredibly uncomfortable and strange to have complete strangers – despite how friendly there were – crowd around. I didn't know what to do or how to respond; so I'd gently smile and move on, but it felt odd and a bit unnerving.

I happen to hate having attention drawn to me and I tried with all my might to act like having 20 people surrounding us, staring, was completely normal. (It felt kind of paparazzi-ish and I suddenly had a great deal of sympathy for celebrities.) I didn't want F to pick-up on my vibes and get perhaps more affected by the situation as a result, so I tried staying calm.

Later, I realized I had accidentally pressed "record" on my iPod while we were walking around the pagoda. The recording captured a conversation my daughter and I had at the Shwedagon; she asked me why people kept touching her and following us everywhere we went. My voice was pitched a bit higher than usual as I tried to explain, "Oooh! People are just being friendly! They think you're cute!  I know you're not used to it...but it's OK."

Thing is: it wasn't OK. It wasn't OK with her. And it has continued to NOT be OK with her. At all. 

I’ll admit: I've struggled knowing how to handle the attention.  It has been a year since we left the United States, and my six year old is still struggling with handling it, too.  I think we're getting much better at it now, but it’s been a steeeep - and slow - learning curve.

When we'd go to Coffee Circles and she'd immediately hide under the tables because staff wanted to love bomb her (all the touching/smiles/affection), I knew there was a problem. It would take a long time to coax her out from under the table where she’d scrunch her face up at the staff who just laughed nervously at her. I’d laugh nervously, too. I also wished she’d just get up off the floor and smile back at the kind staff. It wasn't gonna happen.

It got to the point where my daughter flat-out refused to go to Coffee Circles and would throw massive tantrums if I said we were going.  I also noticed she started wearing not-so-cute clothes. I'd ask her to wear different clothes and she’d refuse. Finally, she explained, "I don't want to look cute! People will touch me!"

F also began ignoring people when they warmly greeted her. She’d sulk and scowl, lower her head, then hide.  Each time, expected she'd start hissing at people.  (Thankfully, that didn't happen.)  Recently, she told me she was sure if she said hello back, strangers would try to touch her.

I knew I had to step-up and protect her need for personal space. After all, she's my kid.  It's my job.  And I could completely relate. I need my personal space, too. It wasn’t my best parenting moment when I realized I needed to grow a backbone and help my kid out a bit!  I felt guilty I hadn’t already been doing that enough; I was too worried about offending people and being polite and adapting to a new culture.

My daughter certainly isn’t special in the attention she receives. It’s normal for foreign children get love bombed.  In many ways, it’s lovely. I’m sure there are some kids that don’t mind, and probably quite like it. My kid just happens not to be one of them.

So, here are a few things that we’re now doing that seems to be working. Perhaps this will help some of you, too, if your kid(s) are getting love bombed:

  • F is expected to acknowledge the person greeting her. If she feels she cannot speak and say hello, that's OK; but she must at least smile and wave. She can’t just ignore them.

  • When someone approaches her, like they’re going to touch her, I say nicely, “Please don’t touch my daughter. She doesn’t like strangers touching her.” This seems to work just fine.

  • If F is worried someone will pinch her cheeks or touch her, even if they haven’t made a move yet, she shows me a hand signal; the hand signal is my cue to intervene and tell that person my daughter doesn’t like strangers touching her. (Sometimes she feels too uncomfortable to say "no" to another person and I think she might feel embarrassed to say aloud how she's feeling. That's why we came up with the hand signal; she still gets some control, but she doesn't have to speak.)  This is working for us, too.
  • When a stranger asks if they can take her picture, we tell them to ask F. She always says no. The response is usually laughter. Sometimes I say, “Sorry! She said no.” But, my daughter has – rightly – asked me why I say “sorry.” I shouldn’t apologize that she doesn’t want her picture taken by a complete stranger, nor should I apologize when she doesn’t want a complete stranger her pinch her cheeks. 
I have to say it’s rare that someone asks if they can take her picture. Usually the camera comes out and like a flash, BOOM: the lens is out. This happened in Bangkok the other week. Our friends happened to be nearby and the man trying to take F’s photo wasn’t taking no for an answer. My sweet friend ended up waving his long arms at the person exclaiming, “No!” The person then raised his camera to my friend…

By the same token, foreigners should ask locals if they want their pictures taken, too. It’s just the respectful thing to do. It goes both ways.

Just to be clear, our family is completely aware that people are being friendly and the love bombs are just that: friendly love and curiosity.  No harm is meant at all.  That doesn’t change the fact that it makes my kid uncomfortable, though.

As her parent, it’s my job to make sure I help her feel some control over her personal space.  And I think that especially since she's a girl, it's vitally important she (and those around her) respect her boundaries about touch so that as she grows older and finds herself in other situations that are not-so-innocent, she will have instilled within her a strong sense of self and an ability to stand-up for herself and say NO. It all starts this early on in her life.

If you live here, what have your experiences with the love bombs been?  How do you handle them?


  1. Great post and interesting from my point of view as we have a baby daughter that is constantly subjected to this, most of the time she enjoys the attention as she will usually be being held by one of us.

    Recently she has started to become reticent on occasion and I suppose this will increase as she gets older and starts to have boundaries and more of a sense of personal space as you describe with your daughter.

    Certainly relatives visiting from the UK have been surprised and sometimes made uncomfortable by the amount and manner of attention that she receives and I suppose initially we were too.

    Having said that I wouldn't change the local attitude to contact for the sad hysteria surrounding any public interaction between adults and children in the UK (not sure what it's like in the US?)where this sort of behaviour would result in immediate suspicion of the adults motives and involvement of various authorities.

    1. Hi Paul,

      I agree that the love bombs are lovely and in many ways, a breath of fresh air in the sense that you don't have to worry about people being paranoid about ulterior motives. In the US, kids really aren't meant to hug their teachers, even, which I think is a shame. (My husband's from England, so I can relate to what you're talking about...and I think it's not too different in the US.)

      It will be interesting how you + your family feels as your daughter grows. Perhaps it will just feel natural to her and you; then maybe the shock will be when you move either back to the UK or to a different country where the children don't receive such attention. In fact, I will admit that the other week, my daughter seemed a bit put out that a friend got the attention and not her...she then stepped-in (instead of her usual hiding) and wanted to be in the picture with her was interesting.

  2. When my daughter was little, this happened to us when we traveled, and it was not cool with my husband! I traveled more and so it was not a surprise for me, but it wasn't one of my favorite things!!! One extreme introvert, one HSP introvert and a new baby in a foreign land, did not make for happy traveling. LOL! Looking back, it was a helleva learning experience!

    I think your approach is kind and courteous, but remember you have a culture and this is not a part of it and you certainly have a right in feeling the way you do. Each situation will call for something a little different. Having the conversation with F and her following your lead and picking up on your vibes during those encounters will help her best.

    You can't change a culture, but you can change how you handle it and be the role model for F. Just be yourself, if you're uncomfortable, it's okay, it's something that F needs to see and handle for herself, too! Right now, Mommy has her back! :) Keep us posted on this.

    I love that saying, "Love Bombing" :)

    1. I can relate to what you're saying, Indigene (being introverted + HS...and F is a HSC). Thanks for the reminder that it's OK to feel uncomfortable sometimes! :)

      Thank you :)

  3. Speaking truth, kindly, in order to make a positive difference in F's experience = the perfect solution. Great post Becky.

  4. This was another wonderful post, and very honest and heartfelt. I can really understand where you are coming from on this about the touching thing and I can understand F's reaction. I would have been the same way...even with the best intentions we all have a right to our personal space and children are no different. I applaud your right to defend that.
    June Maddox

    Love the "Love Bombing" word play as well. Puts the right feel to it.

  5. I love how you are handling this Becky. I cannot say that I understand or can relate. I can only image what it must be like for your daughter and also for you as a mother to have her approached this way. I love how her intuition is telling her right from wrong and what is acceptable to her. Both of you are amazing!! xo

    1. Thank you for your sweet words + encouragement, Suzanne. :)

  6. I am love bombing your blog! It has so many wonderful posts! I do love this one, you take us inside her world and help us see things from there. I love the tools you have given your daughter to set boundaries for others, especially the hand signal and am sure these will be life long skills she will be thankful for.

    1. Thank you, Suzi. I love that you're love bombing the blog! :)

      I hope that she will have some tools to take away from this...I hope it will help her feel she can defend herself long-term, like you said. :)

  7. This post is so helpful! Great way you handle the love bombs. My oldest child hated the attention when we lived in Cambodia - in fact he always carried a stick infront of him at markets and pagodas to protect himself against the love bombs (that should tell me I wasn't too good at being the couragous, protective mom that I should have been - I was also too concerned not to offend anybody)... My strategy became to avoid taking him to crowded places whenever i could, and also to say no on his behalf once in a while. My second child loved the attention - so he got to go to the market with me a lot ;-)

    1. Thank you for your kind words + comment, Signe. I can just imagine your son carrying a stick around. I think your strategy sounds perfect - protecting from the areas that caused him stress. Funny how the two kids responded differently! Thank you for sharing. :)

  8. It would be hard not to love bomb that little girl in any country! Sounds like you're both learning to deal with it graciously (and safely). Well written from experience, Becky!

  9. It might be difficult to not adore explosive device which young girl in a nation! Seems like you are each understanding to cope with this graciously (as well as properly). Well crafted through encounter, Becky!

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