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Teens need hugs, too! The power of the cuddle hormone

If you find that your teenager has started to reject your loving attention and displays of affection, you are certainly not alone! While it may appear that a hug is the last thing they want, Alicia Drummond, our in-house Mental Health Expert and founder of Teen Tips and The Wellbeing Hub, talks about how important showing affection is in bolstering your teen’s self-esteem, performance, resilience and general mental wellbeing.

As the stress and uncertainty of pandemic life rolls on we are still being urged to keep our distance from others but, by and large, hugging our nearest and dearest seems to be back on the menu.  Thank goodness, because hugging matters.

When we are hugged by someone we care about, our bodies release oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone.  Oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine work together to help us feel attached to others and feeling close to someone is a powerful antidote to stress.  Touch is so important to us humans that babies who are not held, cuddled, and touched enough can stop growing.  Most little people love cuddles and won’t need a particular reason to seek one out but, if you are the parent of a teenager, you might be finding that they look deeply uncomfortable when you wrap your arms around them.

As our children enter adolescence, they start to reject things which seem childish to them, and that may include our gestures of affection.  As parents we generally accept their rejection of childhood toys and interests but struggle when we are in the firing line.  It is a sad day when a previously affectionate child pulls away from a hug or shuts down your expressions of love.

For parents, the loss of intimacy can feel devastating, but what we sometimes fail to appreciate is that even though they are the ones doing the rejecting, they will experience a sense of loss, too.

Growing up means giving up on things which have previously been of great comfort such as a favourite teddy or a bedtime cuddle.  Most teenagers secretly mourn the physical affection of parents and may feel jealous of younger siblings who can still enjoy it.  They might hide their envy by being angry with you or indulge in some age-inappropriate teasing of their sibling, but underneath all that behaviour lies sadness for their loss.

Adolescence is about finding our identity as part of our family but separate to it.  Teenagers need to create a little distance between us and them so when your teen gives up the expressing and accepting of physical affection, it is helpful to view it as just part of the process of separation which will ultimately allow them to leave home as independent adults.  They are trying to show you that they no longer want to be defined and treated as children.  They are asking you to respect their need for privacy and no matter how loving your intention, they can experience any form of touch as inappropriate and embarrassing.

So, am I saying that we should stop all physical affection with our teenagers?  Absolutely not, but we need to be sensitive to their needs and more circumspect in our approach.

If you are sensing that your child is becoming uncomfortable with your physical displays of affection, rather than rushing in for the big, smother-mother hug, try a shoulder bump or a brief pat on the back.  Tell them you love them but do it quietly, away from others, and be prepared to be shut down.  No matter how many knock-backs you get, your job is to remind them on a daily basis that they are loveable and loved.

Your confidence might take a bit of a hammering, but their self-esteem will be boosted which matters because healthy self-esteem lies at the heart of mental wellbeing, performance, relationships and resilience.

When my kids were little, every night after their bedtime story, I would ask, “Did I ever tell you how much I love you?” and they would answer, “to the moon and back a hundred times”.  When they hit adolescence and were embarrassed by my very being, I would simply say, “Did I ever tell you?” which nearly always elicited a little smile.  Leaving out the word “love” somehow made it acceptable to them.

Of course, some teens will remain affectionate throughout adolescence, but I hope it brings some comfort to those of you who are not blessed with one of these to know that you are in the majority.  If you can keep the doors open by offering lesser forms of physical affection and show your teens you care with words and actions, we can reduce their sense of pain and loss.  It requires a certain robustness on your part, but this contact really matters and the reward for your efforts will come as they mature and become confident in themselves, at which point you might find you get a big hug back.

The wealth of resources available within The Wellbeing Hub help parents support their children through adolescence and gives them the skills and knowledge to meet their social and emotional needs. It’s a live and interactive web-app which parents can subscribe to individually here or they can refer us to their child’s school so the whole school community can benefit. Contact us for more information.


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