By: Shannon Ralph
I vividly remember my last day as a cool person. I had been living for years—mistakenly—under the assumption that I was a “cool mom.” It’s been five months since that façade crumbled, but it seems like only yesterday.
It was a beautiful spring morning when my wife informed me, rather sheepishly, that our 6th grade son wanted her to drop him off at school instead of me. Apparently, I had embarrassed him the day before. In shock, I struggled to remember the details of the previous day. I had dropped him off bright and early right in front of his school building. Lucas had been in a good mood, smiling and joking on the way to school. If I recall correctly, I laughed at a joke he had made as he opened the car door. I may have laughed loudly—I sometimes do. Apparently, I broke #1 and #2 of the Middle School Parental Commandments.
- Thou shalt not utter a single sound within earshot of any of your child’s peers.
- Though shalt support the narrative that your child fell to Earth from the heavens above and has no living parents to speak of (with the caveat that thou shalt miraculously appear when your child needs money…and then quickly dissipate into oblivion once more).
This basically means that you, as a parent, must pretend you do not exist. Once the car door is ajar, perfect silence must be observed until the car door is closed again. Until your child enters the school. Until you pull away from the curb and turn the corner. Don’t even think about singing along to the radio until you are at least 1.436 miles from the school grounds.
These are the rules no one warns you about as a parent. Stone tablets carved with these commandments did not fall from the sky when my son turned 12. I had to discover these commandments on my own. At my own peril. Once broken, the rules cannot be unbroken. I am no longer allowed to take my son to school. At least, I am not allowed to do so in his good graces.
My son is getting ready to enter 7th grade in two days. He will soon be a teenager—officially. So what does this mean? It means the times they are a-changin’.
Gone are the days when my son would reach up with his chubby little palm to hold my hand. Gone are the days when he would climb into my lap and fall asleep as I rubbed his back. The days when he wanted to snuggle and read together. The days when he came running to me for a hug and cuddle when he got hurt. The days when a tickle from mommy made everything better.
Just as he wants to pretend I do not exist in front of his friends, my son wants to think he no longer needs my affection. He’s a man now, correct? He doesn’t need hugs and kisses any more, right?
All human beings need physical affection. I would argue that adolescents need it at least as much, if not a little more, than small children. Adolescence is a frightening time. Change can be terrifying. Boys and girls find themselves hurling toward adulthood at the speed of light. The world comes at them with so many challenges that are new and scary—a move to a new middle school or high school, increasing homework demands, pressure to figure out what they want to do in life, social lives that are often complicated and conflict-driven, friends who have an ever-increasing influence on a child’s opinions and beliefs, a growing awareness of the opposite (or same) sex, a body that seems to be turning on them as puberty descends in full force, parents who don’t want them to grow up. It can be overwhelming. As a result, children often pull away from their parents in an attempt to feel more grown up. To feel more in control. To exert their independence. Boys, in particular, may feel that affection from his parents is un-manly.
This is a confusing time for parents, as well. We are often startled or hurt by our child’s rejection of our affection. We take the grunts, groans, and complaints to heart. Our instinct is to give into our child’s demands. To stop hugging our kid. To stop touching our kid, altogether.
This is a big mistake.
Despite what they say, adolescents still need affection from their parents. And they secretly want it, believe it or not. There are few things in this world more powerful than the non-verbal intimacy between parents and children. To suddenly remove this primal force from our child’s life at a time when he is most confused and most vulnerable is a huge blow.
Now, I am not recommending that you force your child to kiss you when it truly makes him uncomfortable. And definitely do not try to hug him or hold his hand in front of his friends. We need to be discreet and respect our child’s boundaries while still showing appropriate affection.
Sounds easy, right?
It’s not, I admit. This is a new endeavor for both you and your child, and it can be daunting. But it is possible. There are subtle ways to share non-verbal intimacy with your adolescent. Sit beside him on the couch when you’re watching TV. Ruffle his hair. Hug him at the end of the day before bed. Help him put his jacket on before he leaves for school. Place your hand on his shoulder when you lean over to help him with his homework.
Touch creates connection. It boosts well-being. It tells your child that you are there and that you support him. We all want our children to feel connected and supported. Therefore, we need to continue to share physical affection with our adolescents. We might have to do it on their terms now, but we cannot be deterred. I will continue to hug my son. I will not be dissuaded by his groans. He will know that his mom loves him, dammit.
One day I might even be cool again…but I’m not holding my breath.