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.