My 12-year-old stepson, Will, is not one for long farewells. He tosses a quick “bye” over his shoulder when we drop him off at school. For him, a hug in public from a parental figure is a no go. Any type of kiss would be social suicide.
Apparently, he is well into the second stage of PDA mortification – there are at least three, says Ottawa child and family therapist, Rekha Chagarlamudi. “Typically around seven or eight, children start to pick up on social cues and really become aware of what their peer group thinks, or what their friends are doing. You see another shift around 10 or 11, and then again at 13.”
This preteen progression toward cringing and shrinking away from family members outside the house can feel like the ultimate rejection for parents. But try not to take it too personally, advises Chagarlamudi. Instead, recognize that this is a healthy sign of growth and independence. “It’s really hard as a parent. We forget that they’re developing. We want them to stay that cuddly little three-year-old.”
Parents commonly react in one of two different ways. At one extreme are those who try to force their reluctant child’s affection (and increase their son or daughter’s embarrassment) with an over-the-top “I love you!” or a smothering hug and kiss in front of his friends. Making a big deal out of it may cause your kid to resist even more, and create an unhealthy cycle of conflict. At the other extreme are parents who stop any and all public affection cold turkey, which isn’t ideal either.
“Kids know their parents love them and probably do want to experience that love and affection,” explains Monique Smith, a child and youth therapist in Calgary. “But their fears are basically hijacking that rational thought. Because social cues told them that affection isn’t something they should want to do, they’re acting on that little bit of embarrassment– or fear – when they might actually really enjoy a hug or kiss.” The keys are communication, negotiation and balance. When Jill Sacks Hulley of Red Deer, Alta., drops off her eight-year-old son at school, she gives him options.
“I ask, ‘Do you want a hug or a high-five?’ Usually I end up with the high-five,” she says. “It’s hugs and kisses all around at home, though.”
Establish some guidelines with your child. Maybe affection is limited to the kitchen, the car or a couple of blocks away from the bus stop. Whatever the agreement, this demonstrates healthy self-respect and respect for others.
“The most important relationships we have in our lives start with our own parents,” says Chagarlamudi. She goes on to say that if kids learn that they can negotiate, ask for what they need, and find a healthy balance, then they’ll transfer these essential skills to their current and future relationships, including friends, partners and colleagues. “Being able to communicate in a way where they feel like someone is going to hear them and meet their needs is really important for kids.”
I’m taking this advice to heart, not only for my stepson, but for my seven-year-old daughter, Rory. A few months ago, when I was taking her to the first day of March break art camp, she stopped suddenly and looked up at me.
“Mama, not on the lips, OK? Just a kiss on the cheek.” Amused, I gave her a quick peck on the cheek and a hug. It wasn’t until I got back to the car that it hit me: “Wow. It’s starting already!”
A version of this article appeared in our July 2013 issue with the headline "Object of your affection," p. 60.