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Your Child Today: Middle School

Why Your Teen Still Needs Hugs

Gary Arthur doesn't remember getting a lot of physical affection from his father. In fact, it wasn't until his dad neared the end of his life that Gary even hugged him.

Perhaps this lack of intimacy has caused Gary to raise his sons differently. It's obvious, when you meet the Arthur boys, that they're no strangers to touch. Even the teenagers have no qualms about draping themselves around their dad or giving their mom a bear hug in public.

"I felt such a void in my own life, I chose to express my love physically to the boys," explains Gary, a pastor and father of four. "Even when they were asleep, I would come in and give them a kiss. I never felt uncomfortable about it or set up any guards."

Gary's physical interaction with his boys wasn't limited to hugging and kissing. "From Day One, Gary showed lots of physical affection to the boys," says his wife, Connie. "As infants, he held them in his hands. When they got a little older, he would put them on his feet and toss them. There was a lot of fun associated with his affection."

Touch is important to a child's well-being. Research has shown, for example, that premature infants who are held or massaged gain weight faster than those left alone. But while most parents have no reservations about hugging and kissing infants and small children, physical contact tends to diminish as children approach adolescence. Maybe it's because kids are less lovable in the middle years?mood swings, misbehavior and poor attitudes may bridle a parent's inclination to reach out and embrace a child. Or maybe it's because teens themselves often resist public displays of parental affection.

Yet kids this age need evidence that they're loved. "Many teenagers worry about whether their parents will continue to love them when they are no longer little or cute," writes Lawrence Steinberg, Ph.D., co-author of You and Your Adolescent (HarperPerennial). "Adolescents need to be reassured that nothing?neither their growing maturity, their moods, their misbehavior, nor your anger at something they've done?can shake your basic commitment to them."

The following ideas can help you get closer to your teen:

Continue to exhibit physical affection to your kids, even as they hit adolescence. Don't be inhibited by the fact that their bodies are changing. Girls are especially sensitive to those changes, and need to know that what's happening is normal. Sudden withdrawal of affection during this time can confuse and hurt them.

Offset any disciplinary scene or emotional outburst with physical contact. Kids need to be absolutely certain that whatever they've done, Mom and Dad will always love them. Touching tends to offer that reassurance. Be sure to end any confrontation with eye contact, a smile and a good hug.

Allow your child to display affection in his own unique way. This is something Gary admittedly had a hard time adjusting to as his boys got older. "Because they're guys, they're into a harder show of affection: chest-banging, back-slapping, that sort of thing," he says. If your teenager is uncomfortable with public hugs and kisses, find ways to express affection that won't embarrass him. Not only will it make a difference in your child's life, it will definitely impact your own: the benefits are mutual.

? Elaine Minamide
Writer, educator, mother of three

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