As our children enter adolescence, they will start to reject things which seem childish to them, and that may include our gestures of affection. As parents we generally accept their rejection of childhood toys and interests but struggle when we are in the firing line. It is a sad day when a previously affectionate child pulls away from a hug or shuts down your expressions of love. For parents, the loss of intimacy can feel devastating, but what we sometimes fail to appreciate is that even though they are the ones doing the rejecting, they will experience a sense of loss too.
Growing up means giving up on things which have previously been of great comfort, such as a favourite teddy or a bedtime cuddle. Most teenagers secretly mourn the physical affection of parents and may feel jealous of younger siblings who can still enjoy it. They might hide their envy by being angry with you or indulge in some age-inappropriate teasing of their sibling, but underneath all that behaviour lies sadness for their loss.
They don’t wake up one morning thinking, “today is the day I shall change the bonds with Mum and Dad and that means not letting them anywhere near me”, but they do have a strong, largely unconscious need to pull away. Finding us embarrassing aids the process. So, when your teen gives up the expressing and accepting of physical affection, it is helpful to view it as just part of the process of separation which will ultimately allow them to leave home as independent adults. They are trying to show you that they no longer want to be defined and treated as children. They are asking you to respect their need for privacy which becomes particularly important to them once they enter puberty.
As a parent, it is hard to accept that our children are becoming sexual beings, but as they adjust to this new state, they will be particularly sensitive to any form of touch. The physical expressions of affection most children love, will not be well received by your average teenager, and especially not in the early stages of adolescence when they are still trying to find their identity. No matter what your intention, they can experience touch as inappropriate and embarrassing.
So, am I saying that we should stop all physical affection with our teenagers? Absolutely not, but we need to be sensitive to their needs and more circumspect in our approach. If you are sensing that your child is becoming uncomfortable with your physical displays of affection, rather than rushing in for the big, smother-mother hug, try a shoulder bump or a brief pat on the back. Tell them you love them but do it quietly, away from others, and be prepared to be shut down. No matter how many knockbacks you get, your job is to remind them on a daily basis that they are loveable and loved. Your confidence might take a bit of a hammering, but their self-esteem will be boosted which matters because healthy self-esteem lies at the heart of mental wellbeing, performance, relationships and resilience.
When my kids were little every night after their bedtime story, I would ask, “Did I ever tell you how much I love you?” and they would answer, “to the moon and back a hundred times”. When they hit adolescence and were embarrassed by my very being, I would simply say, “Did I ever tell you?” which nearly always elicited a little smile. Leaving out the word “love” somehow made it acceptable to them.
Of course, some teens will remain affectionate throughout adolescence, but I hope it brings some comfort to those of you who are not blessed with one of these to know that you are in the majority. If you can keep the doors open by offering lesser forms of physical affection and show your teens you care with words and actions, we can reduce their sense of pain and loss. It requires a certain robustness on your part, but this contact really matters and the reward for your efforts will come as they mature and become confident in themselves, at which point you might find you get a big hug back.
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