Pre-teens and young teenagers are famously prickly about physical affection. But during these years of rapid change, touch is just what your child requires. In his book What Teens Need Most from Their Parents, youth worker Bill Sanders explains: "Though they may seem uncomfortable at first, they need the looks, words or gestures that show you care."
Most boys and girls tolerate and eventually enjoy their parents' hugs, as long as they're brief. Still, be ready to offer a long hug when the situation warrants it. As your child gets older, you'll have to get smarter about making the affection connection work.
Here are five pointers that will help you stay close while adjusting to your child's changing preferences and needs.
1. Find new ways to express love.
Girls are less likely to shy away from cheek kissing and hugging, especially from mothers?but be sensitive to your teen's response. Kissing and hugging at bedtime are still usually acceptable. But start trying other ways to express affection. One mom braids her daughter's hair before special occasions. A dad makes a point of escorting his daughter by the arm whenever possible?to a chair at dinner, to the car or to a restaurant table. She rolls her eyes?and loves it.
2. Find excuses for closeness.
Next time your stand-offish child is doing homework at the kitchen table, scoot your chair next to him and ask to see what he's working on. Your interest and the physical closeness will both convey warmth.
3. Find an opportunity to kiss.
Boys begin to shy away from kissing in elementary school, and by puberty it's usually an ordeal. Most sons will tolerate a mother's kiss on the temple while they're eating breakfast, especially if you say wryly, "Anyone eating at my table owes me a kiss once a day." He'll resign himself to "Mom's rule," and might even be secretly glad.
4. Find alternatives to the traditional hug.
With moms especially, a boy may feel like physical touch is an invasion of his personal space. He's not so much shying away from you as he's trying to become a separate person, disconnected from childhood and its dependence. Be patient, and keep looking for other points of contact.
Virtually all teens feel uncomfortable when touching turns too personal. Tickling isn't appropriate because it leaves your teenager feeling out of control, and that's something he or she struggles with. Back scratching and massages from the opposite-sex parent also may make a teen feel uncomfortable.
Dads can connect with sons through physical activities like wrestling or horseplay. Hug your son "hello" or shake his hand. You're providing the touch he needs and recognizing him as a budding fellow adult.
5. Find a way around the shrug.
Tell your teens often that you love them, even if they shrug it off. The affection connection you preserve now will become a lifetime legacy for both of you.
Author, chaplain's wife and mother of two
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