Handling Touch with Touchy Teens

By Tina Feigal Copyright © 2015

Mom arm around sonYesterday I coached a mom to put her arm around her teen son and express her appreciation for the living room being picked up.  She let it go when I said it, but circled back to it later in the session, saying, “About that putting my arm around him? That’s not happening.”

We discussed what she thought may have been the reason for the “no touch” policy her teen was silently enforcing.  She said she didn’t really know, so I offered some ideas.  “That one,” she said after I gave a short list, “He doesn’t feel lovable.”

Sad as this is, it doesn’t have to stick. When this caring mom realized that her son didn’t feel lovable, we set about planning to help him receive her touch. Why? Because kids thrive on the unspoken acceptance that comes with touch from their parents. Even when they don’t seem to want it, it can be a powerful message of affirmation.

Another reason to help your child accept touch as a normal form of healthy expression is that you want him able to accept affection as a precursor to forming a romantic relationship.  This is normal development, and should be seen in a positive light. If you feel hesitant to touch your teen for fear of being misinterpreted as inappropriate, let that go. Kids need healthy touch from their parents. Arms around shoulders, soft hand caresses, hugs, cheek and forehead kisses, and for some cultures, kisses on the lips, are all bonding tools for parents and children. Don’t miss your opportunity to help your child learn healthy touch.

Here are 4 ways to build toward positive physical affection:

1. Let go of preconceived ideas about touch.  Open your heart to moms and dads showing physical affection to their teens, because they need it.  But don’t push when your child moves away from your touch. It may take a while before it feels comfortable.  Stay focused on the giving aspect of physical touch, rather than what you’re receiving. That will come later.

2. Start with your voice.  Use a tone that says, “I accept you.”  So if there’s a hole in the screen door, ask gently, “What happened?” and then, “What do you want to do about it?” A lecture at this time will only spark opposition, and won’t get you what you want, which is a screen replaced by your child and an intact relationship. Gentle inquiry will be interpreted as willingness to help them problem solve, but without the judgment.  That’s what teens need.

When you need tasks done around the house, meet with your children and ask, “How should we divide the tasks around here?” but don’t offer your ideas. Create a vacuum so they can fill it in with their solutions.  Use an appreciative tone when talking about their cooperation: “When you cleaned up the kitchen, I felt so relaxed and happy, because I didn’t even have to ask.  You are making my day!” (Note: Even if it’s not perfectly clean, do respond with appreciation.  We get more success when we reward their efforts without criticizing the exact way they cleaned up.)

3. If your teen isn’t used to touch, start small. You wouldn’t want to give bear hugs to someone who doesn’t ever hug you, so a warm touch to the forearm when you are talking will be a good start.  If that’s rebuffed, let it go and try again with a touch to the hand. When that’s gone well, use opportunities to put your arm gently on his shoulder when talking. Then work toward touching cheeks at bedtime. As these small touches are accepted, you can move toward a light hug, and then a “real hug.” The pace will depend on your focused reading of the teen’s signals, with backing off if it’s not well-received, and starting again with a smaller touch.

4. When your teen needs to feel lovable (and what teen doesn’t?) keep an open dialogue, supported by interested questions about his day, his friends, school, and sports. “What did you learn in science today?” shows interest.  “Did you get all your science homework handed in?” communicates controlling.  Teens are allergic to being controlled, so you’ll get a lot more conversation when you leave that part out, and just show curiosity. “Thanks for telling me,” is a great response.

Some teens are just not open to touch, even if you do everything right. That’s OK. You tried. But work on the tone of voice and helping him feel lovable anyway, as these are huge in allowing your child to grow toward healthy physical affection.

Maybe this article covered everything you needed on this topic. If not, and you’d like customized help with this or any other parenting issue, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

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