Here’s a loaded question – When’s the last time you hugged your tween or teenager?
It’s easy to hug babies. To a newborn, a parent’s love may be as important as food.
They want to be hugged from the first moment of life. They’re so cute and vulnerable that you have to restrain yourself not to hug them. It’s well known that a parent’s affectionate touch has a long arm, from boosting a newborn’s healthy development to shaping the child’s brain later on.
A study published in the August 2016 issue of Cerebral Cortex demonstrated that school age children who were touched often by their mothers have greater brain activity across the part of the brain controlling social behavior. In other words, it affects things so a person treats a peer differently than a rock.
Affectionate, loving parental touch matters. It matters in many ways, especially with boosting children’s brain development.
Let’s focus now on tweens and teens.
Some time between the ages of 9 and 13, a child (and how they hate to be called by that word) begins the journey called “Adolescence.” It’s an important journey because it transitions one from childhood into adulthood. And it isn’t easy, either for them or for us parents.
During this time, young people reject what they deem are childish ways, interests and likes, in order to act more grown up. One of the possible “casualties” along the way is electing to give up the expressing and the accepting of physical affection with parents. Sometimes, there might just be expressing. Other times, it might be just the accepting. And at other times, it might be both. The child does this to show they no longer want to be treated and defined as a child.
When the adolescent-in-process gives up the accepting and/or expressing of physical affection with a parent, he can create a loss that he may never quite get over – the letting go of a powerful non-verbal intimacy with parents. You may find this child to be more standoffish and physically unresponsive, shying away from the old contact because he now believes it is inappropriate, embarrassing and even diminishing the status he is seeking.
Between you and me, you can tell when your child, oops, I mean young adult-in-the-making, misses the parental touch. Watch what happens when they see Mom or Dad cuddling a much younger child. There are comments like, “Why don’t you stop hugging on her?” Or, “You’re going to spoil him!” Don’t be surprised when a little while later, the teenager engages in some age inappropriate teasing of the much younger sibling.
Why does he behave this way? Because although he gave up the physical affection, it’s still painful to witness it. In reality, he misses it. But woe to the parent who would dare verbalize this. Growing up requires giving up, and ceasing physical affection with parents can create a hard loss.
So what’s a parent to do?
First, remember your own adolescence. Even if it’s scores of years behind you now, it’s pretty hard to forget such a confusing time. Remember that you did the same thing.
It’s important to remember that the adolescent who is making mincemeat from your kishkes and is taking your heart and dribbling it like a basketball without a care in the world is the same adorable child whom you loved to pieces. This is hard. You still love him. But he knows how to make it difficult for you to love him.
There are lesser forms of physical affection. Pat your teenager on the back. Give them a side hug. “Little” acts of physical affection are ways of staying connected when your child erects that Berlin Wall of refusal of seeking the exact primal touch that he craves. If you can keep some level of physical contact in place, then as your teenager grows older and becomes more confident in growing older, the acceptance, expression and reciprocation of physical affection can once again open up.
Don’t underestimate verbal contact between you and your adolescent. Using words to convey sensitivity, empathy, support, interest, attention, approval, and appreciation can all communicate the emotional warmth that physical affection so efficiently conveys. The power of a friendly smile to warm a beleaguered teenager’s heavy heart, as well as laughing with each other and making time to have fun together is immeasurable. Dance briefly with your adolescent(s) around the kitchen on Thursday evenings.
Adolescent boys more than girls are particularly susceptible to giving up physical affection from parents. Physical affection can make them feel childish. It can also make your son feel unmanly as he might think that to be a man means jettisoning his “childish” need for parental touch. The best response for parents in such a situation? Back off to respect the more physically aloof definition he is after.
Fortunately, there are teenagers, males included, who keep the door to physical affection with parents open all through their growing up. They somehow understand that forsaking this primal connection is not some adolescent obligation. Nor do they treat it as a necessary loss. However, this is the exception and not the rule. Most others intermittently grant their parents a loving touch, or hug, or kiss or allow themselves to receive such from their parents. Mood and circumstances are usually the mitigating factors here. For example, your adolescent might give out more “physically available” vibes during family Simchas. It will almost never happen in the presence of friends. Promise on that one.
Let’s say a parent reads this article and then commits the faux pas of trying to express physical affection to their adolescent. Oh no. What happens?
The parent might strike gold and the child accepts it. A great day for all.
In all likelihood (and I’m not a betting person), the adolescent will make it clear that he believes his parent has a case of the “cooties.” It might be painful, Mom and Dad, but he’s not rejecting you. Just reframe it as the time or circumstance or mood wasn’t right. Try again. But not right away.
I sincerely hope that “I love you” and I’m proud of you” are two phrases that are part of every parent’s lexicon. You can never say them too often. And they are powerful words that can carry your adolescent through a lot.
Part of parenting is understanding that when our children are little, we need to be physically connected to them as much as possible. When they get older, it’s not that we parents physically disconnect from them. Rather, it’s about finding new, creative ways of connecting with them.
I read somewhere a long time ago that a child needs four hugs daily for survival, eight for maintenance and twelve for growth. How do you give your teenager twelve hugs a day?
Start each day with hugging your children, teenagers included. Who care if all parties are grumpy? Then hug your children before they leave for school. Intercept them as they traipsing out the door. Another hug when they come home from school and then another at bedtime. That’s four hugs to reach the “survival rate.”
These moments of physical connection should ideally be coupled with emotional components as well. It shouldn’t be a hug alone but start with, “How did you sleep?” “How was math class today?” Focus on the moment.
You can discover different ways to hug your teenager. Find little excuses to kiss them, like kissing them on the top of the head, or holding hands at the Shabbos table. Dance together while singing Shalom Aleichem. Rotate sitting next to each teen, using the opportunity to put your arm around one individually. If you grew up in a home where physical affection wasn’t common, this may be difficult for you, so start slow. It can even be a small gesture, like putting a hand on a child’s arm or caressing his cheek. Many boys dislike making eye contact so talk to your son while driving. He’s captive and you’re in control. Wink. (Wish I had the emoji available for that one).
Although some teens, especially girls, will be physically affectionate with friends, it doesn’t make up for a lack of physical affection from their parents. Parental touch is both safe and irreplaceable. If teenagers don’t get the parental touch, they may go looking for love in all the wrong places.
Adolescents are not necessarily easy nor is it always easy to love them. Feeling awkward, adolescents will push away parents. Yet in reality, adolescents feel vulnerable. It’s a time when they need their parents’ affection the most.
As always, daven.
Dr. Hylton I. Lightman is a senior statesman among pediatricians, an internationally-recognized authority and diagnostician, a public speaker, expert witness and go-to resource for health issues in the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond. Originally from South Africa, he started his current practice, Total Family Care of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, PC in 1987. Dr. Lightman is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FAAP). Dr. Lightman is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. In addition, he is actively involved in teaching pediatric and family nurse practitioners through Columbia University, Pace University, Lehmann College, and Molloy College, as well as mentoring physician assistants through Touro College. Read more here.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.