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The late Virginia Satir, a therapist and author known for her work with family-centred therapy and self-esteem, said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” While science may not be able to confirm those exact numbers, other studies have shown that physical touch provides significant physical, emotional and relational benefits. The more hugs and physical touch we receive, it seems, the healthier and more well-connected we are.
When I first read this, I felt like a parenting failure. Especially when I considered my teenagers (ages 13 and 16), who are increasingly rushing in and out of the house or holing up in their bedrooms. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of meeting this high need for hugs. Do I even come close to hugging my kids enough? I wondered. And what even counts as “hugging” anyway? A squeeze on the shoulder? A high-five?
Calculating hugs with my youngest, a first-grader, was relatively easy. She likes a hug when she wakes, and when I drop her off and pick her up from school; she wants to snuggle when we watch TV and when she gets tucked in. No problem. When my teens were younger, it was the same. But now hugs with my older kids are few and far between, mostly because we’re rarely in the same room together.
While it’s normal for teens to pull back from their parents and become more independent as they get older, they still, like all humans, require physical touch. I figured I’d just have to try harder.
My hug routine went something like this: In the morning, as I cleaned up the lunch prep mess in the kitchen, did dishes and prepared coffee, I kept my ear tipped at the front door. When I heard rustling backpacks and coats, I’d dry my hands and walk over for a hug before they rushed out the door for the bus. At bedtime, I’d lean down and hug my middle-schooler, who’s usually camped out watching The Office on the couch, then I’d head upstairs and knock on my high-schooler’s bedroom door to offer a groggy goodnight hug before stumbling off to bed. Sometimes, my kids would glance over at me like, ‘Why are you hovering?’ as they slung their trapper-keeper strap over their shoulder. But mostly, they embraced me back warmly (albeit quickly).
But even with this extra effort, those hugs only amounted to maybe two a day, not nearly enough for survival! I thought: Am I literally starving my kids of affection?
I began ruminating on my shortcomings, wondering how my hug deprivation was ruining my older children’s lives. How many years of their adult therapy would be rooted in their mom’s inability to dole out eight hugs every day? For weeks I beat myself up with thoughts like this until one night, as I was giving my 13-year-old what has become a nightly back rub, I realized that this, too, counted as physical affection.
My middle-schooler is in that sweet spot—no longer a little kid willing to snuggle up next to me, but not quite completely pulled away like an older teen. He also sleeps like a snail, curled up in a strange off-the-pillow ball on his bed, resulting in almost constant knots in his back.
“Wanna trade back rubs?” he asks me pretty much nightly while we watch TV together. “Sure,” I say. He slides in front of me on the floor and for 10 minutes I work out the kinks that accumulate around his shoulder blades. Most often it ends there, especially when it’s cold out and I don’t want to move out from under my blankets on the couch for him to reciprocate. Sometimes, though, I’ll say, “My turn!” and we’ll switch spots. For me, he grabs the hairbrush we keep in the end table drawer next to the couch and brushes my hair, moving the brush over my whole head, carefully considering which direction will feel the best and remembering which spots he can press hard and which spots are more tender.
Sometimes he’s greedy, like last night, when he was done with his massage and then asked, “Wanna trade hairbrushes?” This made me giggle, and I chided him about it before telling him to fetch the hairbrush.
It’s trickier with my older teenager. I still haven’t quite figured out how to pack in the regular kinds of physical interactions I manage with my middle-schooler because with an after-school job and friends, he’s simply not around as much. I’ve mostly stuck with those morning and bedtime hugs and a few playful shoves in between. At least that’s something.
I’ve thought about a lot of things during my almost 17 years as a parent; some little and some big. Am I giving my kids access to the healthiest foods? Am I also letting them indulge in not-so-healthy things sometimes? Am I showing the right amount of affection while also letting them grow and spread their wings and become independent? It can be really hard to know if I’m walking that line just so. And probably the reality is that I fall short a lot of times. But all I can do is keep trying, keep learning and keep growing.
Did I hug my teen eight times today? Four? No, but I did hug him once and I rubbed his back for 10 minutes. And I’m pretty sure that counts as more adequate than mere survival.