Expressing affection

Despite their grimaces, teens still need parental affection

/p> One of my children told me I was so embarrassing that she couldn’t be seen with me in a store,” says parent educator and family therapist Patricia Morgan. “When I asked her why, she said it was because I was too affectionate.”

Remember when they were toddlers and you wished they didn’t want to be carried and cuddled quite so much? Those days can seem far away when your teen backs away from hugs or shrugs off the arm you wrap around her shoulder, but Morgan says it’s not really so different: “Remember how your toddler would come to you for hugs, then run away to explore? Teens are doing the same — but they’re making a much bigger circle away. They will come back.”

Cathie Pelly, a parent educator in Calgary, reminds parents that even though some teens resist it, touch is still important. “Teens need touch as much as anyone else. For some kids, touch is really primary. Others don’t need it as much, but everyone needs some.”

But forcing a reluctant teen into a bear hug isn’t going to be productive. So how do you make sure your resistant teen is getting the touch he needs and feels reassured that you still love him?

• Ask him when it would be OK to give him a hug. Is it OK if there’s nobody else is around? Or if just family is around?

• Look for daily routines where you could potentially incorporate a hug. For example, if you generally see everyone out the door in the morning, you could hug everyone good-bye. It could also be part of your bedtime routine to go into each room and give each child a hug — including your teen.

• Is your teen still saying “no hugs”? Pelly suggests you simply stand close to her when you are talking or doing things together.

• Or pat her on the back, give high- fives, drape an arm over her shoulder when you stand or sit near her, rest your hands on her shoulders when she’s working on the computer and take any opportunities to give affectionate touch.

• Pelly also suggests that you make sure you have one-on-one time with your teen. That shared parent-child time is another way to show affection, especially if you can focus on making it positive and don’t use it to discuss grades or chores.

• Express your positive feelings for your child in words and in how you respond to him. Let him know when you’re pleased or proud of something he’s done. Morgan asks, “Do your eyes light up when your child walks into the room?” If they do, that’s a powerful message.

If you’re thinking that it might be better to just give up and stop trying to show affection, since she doesn’t seem to want it, Morgan says the situation is more complicated than the teen simply not wanting your hugs. “As kids become teens, there are lots of things going on. They want to feel that they are cool and fit in with the others, and they are beginning to want to have boyfriends or girlfriends. A hug from a parent is a poor substitute for getting affection from a partner.”

The risk, Morgan says, is that a touch-deprived teen is vulnerable to getting involved in a less-than-desirable relationship, just to get that touch. “If you haven’t been getting enough physical contact, any kind of affectionate touch can feel like fireworks going off,” explains Morgan. Teens are hormonal enough without adding that element to their budding relationships.

So keep sneaking in those pats on the back, bedtime hugs and shoulder rubs after a stressful day at school — your teen still needs to know you care.

Parents who don’t want to hug

Parent educator Patricia Morgan says that sometimes it’s not the teen who resists being hugged — it’s the parent who pulls back. Some parents have never been very physically affectionate. A father who used to enjoy cuddling his daughter may suddenly feel uncomfortable about it once she develops breasts; a mother may feel awkward hugging a son who is suddenly taller than she is. Morgan encourages parents to try to work through these feelings, perhaps with some counselling. “It can feel like a real rejection to the child if you abruptly stop showing affection, and makes them quite vulnerable,” she explains.