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When your kids are little, parenthood is pretty much a contact sport -- a nonstop marathon of smooching and snuggling. Fast-forward to their teen years, and it's an entirely different story. Take my 14-year-old, for example. I used to put his sweet little baby toes in my mouth just to make him giggle. Now he not only has a pair of huge hairy man feet, but all of our tender moments -- including those times he rests his chin on the top of my head, just to show how tall he is-happen entirely on his terms. And what about his 16-year-old sister? Sure, she'll occasionally play footsie with me while we watch House. But if I hug her uninvited, she turns into a human surfboard.
Experts say we shouldn't let those cold shoulders fool us. Kids not only want us to reach out to them, but also need constant reminders that we care. "Teenagers know that they're often no fun to be around," says Dan Kindlon, PhD, a child psychology professor at Harvard University. "But they still want you to love them -- and want you to show it." Remember that hold-me-close-now-let-me-go dance your toddler did on the playground, racing away from you to swing or slide, but zooming back to the mother ship for reassurance? "It's the exact same dance," Kindlon says. "It's just that teens go away further, and stay away longer." This distancing, which is vital to becoming independent, typically starts in the tween years, "when kids start to walk 20 feet ahead of you in a parking lot and race up to their room and shut the door the minute they get home," says Elizabeth Cauffman, PhD, a psychologist and adolescent development specialist at the University of California, Irvine.
The behavior also stems from the awkwardness of puberty. "These kids are suddenly having lots of sexual thoughts and feelings, so not only can hugs from mom feel dangerous, but even verbal affection can seem threatening," says James Windell, M.A., a clinical psychologist in Oakland, Michigan, and coauthor of The Fatherstyle Advantage: Surefire Techniques Every Parent Can Use to Raise Confident, Caring Kids (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Few teens manage this push-me/pull-you stage gracefully, and parents, especially moms, wind up feeling hurt. (I remember my son once asking me to sit five rows behind him in the movie theater and sulking while I watched Johnny Depp.) So we get too adamant about that goodbye kiss, setting up power struggles. Or we withdraw, rejecting kids in ways that can hurt and confuse them. Finding a middle ground gets harder and harder.
But it's important to keep in touch, and not just physically. Parents need to ask kids about their friends, listen when they wail about school, and make lasagna or shoot hoops when they're down in the dumps -- all those gestures that psychologists lump under a big umbrella called parental warmth. Without that daily shelter, teens have a much tougher time learning social skills and building self-esteem. Moms and dads also need those close moments with their teens to avoid getting overly focused on all the daily hassles and skirmishes, whether it's insisting they can't wear cutoffs to school or don't have dibs on the car radio. Following, some expert advice on smart ways to show affection to your oh-so-aloof kids. And not to worry -- before you know it, your 18-year-old will navigate his way to independence and make a beeline back to you.
When your kid starts insisting you keep your distance -- in my house, that involves eye rolling, mock gagging or the ultra-offensive "eww, get away from me!" -- relax. You can show your teens you love them while still giving them space.
1. Let your kids go. Hard as it can be, it's important to accept the fact that once your teen starts pulling away, he's in charge, not you. "Try not to take it personally," says Glenn Kashurba, MD, an assistant psychiatry professor at Drexel University and Allegheny University of the Health Sciences in Pennsylvania. "He'll come back when he needs to -- and you should be there for him." To make things easier, talk to your teens about what's happening. "Tell them you understand why they need to keep their distance," says Glenn Roisman, PhD, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "and that it's okay because you're entering a new phase of your relationship."
2. Respect your teen's rep. When kids are hanging with their friends, it's important they look cool. Don't mess that up with any displays of affection -- which are certain to be rebuffed-in front of your children's peers, Cauffman advises. Hugs can wait until no one else is around.
3. Start new routines. The days of tucking them into bed at night or waking them up with a kiss may be long gone, but that doesn't mean you can't find clever ways to start some new show-your-love rituals. Try blowing a bedtime kiss through their door. Or pat them on the back when you hand them lunch money in the morning. Playfully insist on a smooch every time you hand over the car keys. The point is making an affectionate gesture habit, which they'll come to rely on even if they act like they hate it.
4. Find affection alternatives. Kashurba suggests parents, especially dads, modify the ways they show affection to their teens. Hugging daughters can become embarrassing once their breasts begin to develop. Chances are you've already figured out that rumpling her hair is out of the question, so experiment. Try an occasional hip check by the kitchen sink or a back scratch while she's at the computer. Games -- whether it's touch football or flicking each other with wet dishrags -- offer parents a chance to stay physical with both boys and girls.
5. Chill their way. Flop down on the couch next to your teen, even if it means you have to endure MTV's The Hills. You might not be able to hug it out, but sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and sharing a laugh can be the next best thing.
6. Pick your moments. Your teen may brush off most of your overtures, but there are always unexpected times when she feels especially vulnerable -- overwhelmed by calculus, for example, or after a fight with her best friend. Seize the moment. She might not ask for it, but she'd really love a reassuring arm around the shoulder.
7. Remember, showing up matters most. When raising teens, "being actively engaged in their daily lives trumps everything," says Cauffman. That means rooting from the bleachers at basketball games, eating dinner together most nights, and really listening -- on their terms, not yours -- without judgment.
Has your teen started playing it cool? Chances are your reaction isn't the same as your husband's. Dads try to stay close by boosting independence -- giving driving lessons, offering job advice -- or with good-natured goofing around that takes the edge off teenage angst. Moms, on the other hand, tend to cope with the growing distance by spending more time with their kids and keeping up-to-date on every aspect of their lives. But with so many more working mothers and hands-on fathers, the gender gap is shrinking, according to researchers at Boston College. What's more, kids have already adapted and are now equally good at getting the hugs they need from both parents.
Sure, teens need lots of affection, but there's growing evidence that parents, especially moms, also thrive on physical contact with loved ones. A study at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill found that hugging and holding hands with your spouse produces stress-reducing chemicals powerful enough to lower blood pressure. Women benefit more than men -- in part because closeness triggers the release of oxytocin, the same stress-busting chemical mothers produce while breastfeeding. (Higher levels of oxytocin have also been linked to lower breast-cancer rates.) Depending on how crazed life is in your home, you may need more of those warm-and-fuzzy moments than your husband. So don't hesitate to tell him, "I need a hug -- now!"
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.