Separating from childhood to begin the journey of adolescence (around ages 9-13), young people reject many childish ways—interests and likes—in order to act more grown up. In the process, they may elect to give up the expressing and the accepting of physical affection with parents (sometimes just the expressing, sometimes just the accepting, sometimes both) in order to show that they no longer want to be defined and treated as a child.
In doing so, adolescents can create a loss that they never quite get over—the letting go of a powerful non-verbal intimacy with parents.
What parents may encounter at this juncture is a more standoffish and physically unresponsive son or daughter who shies away from the old contact because now it feels inappropriate, even embarrassing, diminishing the older status that they seek. Also, after puberty, when the need for physical privacy is increased, the teenager often wants parental touch to be more circumspect so it is not, however unintended, experienced as sexually obtrusive. An affectionate parent can pat, physically play with, and wrestle with a child in ways that are simply off-limits with an adolescent.
Sometimes you can tell how much they miss the old parental touch and hug and kiss when they get angry seeing a parent cuddle a much younger child. “Why don’t you stop hugging on her?” Or, “You’re going to spoil him!” And a little later, the teenager engages in some age-inappropriate teasing of the much younger sibling. Why? The answer is because it’s painful to witness what he or she has forsaken, but is still missing. Growing up requires giving up, and ceasing physical affection with parents can create a hard loss.
It helps ease and lessen the loss when parents can do two things: continue to offer a lesser form of physical affection, and provide expression of caring through words when acts of physical affection are disallowed. Patting your teenager on the back or giving them a side hug can often get through the painful wall of refusal that is keeping the teenager from the primal parental touch that they still miss.
Remember, if you can keep some level of physical contact in place, then as the teenager grows older, and becomes more confident in being older, the acceptance, expression, and reciprocation of physical affection can open up again.
Verbal contact that conveys caring is more important the less welcoming of physical contact the adolescent becomes. Using words to convey sensitivity, empathy, support, interest, attention, approval, and appreciation can all communicate the emotional warmth that physical affection so efficiently conveys. And never underestimate 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.
Adolescent boys are particularly susceptible to giving up physical affection from parents because not only does that demonstration of caring feel childish, it also feels unmanly, at least according to the notion that to be a man means being proof against the childish need for parental touch. In response, parents usually back off to respect the more physically aloof definition he is after.
Then, what I sometimes see happen in high school age young men going through a romantic breakup is greater difficulty processing the devastation than for young women, who often seem better emotionally equipped to process the loss than young men who can silent up or even act out the pain—young women often seeking and finding emotional support, young men often going it alone.
Fortunately, there are many cases of teenagers, including young men, who keep the door to physical affection with parents open all through their growing up. They are mature or wise enough to understand how forsaking this primal connection is not some adolescent obligation. They do not treat it as a necessary loss. For most others, however, the degree of giving and receiving a loving touch, or hug, or kiss with parents is intermittently permitted depending on mood and circumstance, perhaps accepting and giving it more on close family occasions, for example, and resisting it when in front of friends.
So physical affection from parents with their adolescent can be a hit or miss proposition. And when it is a miss, and the parental overture is turned away, it’s important that parents don’t take that as a personal rejection. It’s better, when refused to just assume the time or mood or circumstance isn’t right, take a rain check, and try again another time when, weather permitting, conditions will be more favorable.
In the meantime, never forget to use that old verbal substitute for physical affection that never goes out of style and that is almost as primal as a hug or kiss in its way—those three little words that you can never tell your teenager too often: “I love you.”