My own teenage son is currently 14 and getting closer to looking eye to eye with me every day. (Seems like he’s grown a foot since we took this pic six or seven months ago.) My wife and I both have warm, affectionate personalities. So it has always been natural for us to have close, physically affectionate relationships with our son. But with his growing age and changing development as a man, I can feel this natural connection being challenged. Especially with me. My little boy is no longer a little boy. He’s not even a big boy anymore. He is undeniably a young man now. Still a lot of growing up yet to do, no doubt. But the boyhood days are now in the rear-view mirror, adolescence is the here and now, and adulthood is not far away on the horizon. And I can feel the impact and tension when it’s time for hugs and kisses.
And the crazy part?
It’s me. Not him. My son is still as affectionate with his Mom and me as he has ever been. Hugs and kisses still mean a lot to him, and he obviously wants them from both of us. And today as I was telling him goodbye before he leaves on a little trip, I realized it: Mr. Marriage and Family Therapist Dad needs to get over the natural awkwardness that is coming with this life transition. If you are a parent of a teenage son or daughter – especially if you are a Dad – I’ll bet you know what I’m talking about. Whether it is something hardwired inside, or something programmed from our rapidly changing culture, we feel something that tells us to be more physically guarded and less physically affectionate with our adolescents.
But you know what? They still need that healthy, close physical affection from us. And that means we need to adjust, deal with our own discomfort, and be intentional about continuing to share positive physical touch with our teenage sons and daughters. Here are just four of the many reasons this is so important for Moms and Dads of teens – especially us Dads.
1. It affirms them deeply during a time when they may be filled with self-doubt or searching to find a solid sense of identity. Let’s face it. The teenage years are often marked by turbulence, doubt, and searching. Life becomes so much more complex for them as they emerge from childhood into the layers and opportunities and dangers of adolescence. And they desperately need a foundation of strong love and acceptance from the most important adults in their lives – Mom and Dad.
2. It helps them feel healthy and confident about their body. At a time when their bodies are going through so many intense changes, they need those healthy hugs and kisses from their parents to help them continue to feel good about their physical selves. Positive touch from Dad and Mom shows them their bodies continue to be normal, good, and lovable – even though everything about them seems to be changing.
3. Research continues to show teenage sons and daughters are much less likely to seek unhealthy physical affirmation when they have regular healthy affirmation from parents – especially Dads. They are less likely to get into legal trouble and less likely to get into major school trouble. In short, adolescents with a strong healthy bond (marked by healthy physical affection) have a stronger sense of self and healthier boundaries. And this means a better self-image. It means better relationships. And it basically means a better life. Fellow fathers – our kids need those healthy touches, hugs, and kisses from us so much, especially during their teen years!
4. It reminds them you will always love them and be available to them as they face the changes and challenges of life. Yes, our relationships with our kids do need to change and grow over the years as they develop through all the seasons and stages of life through adolescence and adulthood. But they need to feel the reassurance from us that our love for them will not waver. Feeling that strong connection with us throughout their adolescent journey helps to impress upon them a lasting compass they can take with them wherever adulthood may lead them.
“But my son/daughter doesn’t seem to want closeness or affection from me.” Well, we certainly don’t want to smother them or express physical affection to them that is not really reflective of our overall emotional relationship. And, of course we need to respect proper physical and sexual boundaries. Crossing those lines means abuse – not affection. But, whether they seem to naturally want your affection or not, they really do need it. Work on building the kind of conversational and emotional relationship with them so that expressing love through healthy hugs and kisses is a natural part of your connection.
And I’ll be working on it, as well. I could tell when my son left earlier today, he was eager for meaningful goodbye hugs and kisses from me. And I probably gave him a C+ effort. When he gets home, I’m gonna aim for a solid A. No, I don’t want to weird him out. But I don’t want to let him down, either. He means too much to me to let him down on something where I know what he needs. Know what I mean? Happy hugging!