Baby and toddler boys are easy to hug and cuddle. Their chubby little bodies practically demand to be squeezed. When you do, they giggle and nuzzle closer for more. They hug you back, and you feel like a million bucks. They’re irresistible!
Fast forward a decade or so, and that same lovable snuggle-bear has turned into a sullen, hulking, unresponsive grizzly who also kind of smells. He treats you like dirt. You don’t even want to hug him, but he needs you to. As he outwardly pushes you away, he is silently begging you for physical affection.
Remember back to your own teenage years. You assumed that everyone noticed the tiny hole in your shirt and thought you were a loser. You begged your parents for those name-brand shoes, and you sometimes cried at night. You desperately wanted to fit in with the other kids at school, but you were suddenly way taller or way shorter than everyone else. Your body was betraying you by doing weird things, your best friend dropped you, and algebra was hard.
When your son was little, he would run to you to kiss a boo-boo or soothe his tender feelings. But now that he’s a half-man, he might be bigger than you are, and he feels so awkward in his own skin that he cringes away from your touch. Our society values tough guys, and he tries to demonstrate his maturity by being surly. He thinks that he is too old to show his feelings. When he rejects your affection, it’s easy to feel that he is rejecting you personally.
It’s not you, it’s him. He is still a child, and he’s hurting. There’s a reason that the law doesn’t recognize anyone under 18 as an adult—your teen is still developing. He is shaping his identity, and how he will raise his own children someday. Although he might have rejected your attempts to show your love for him, forgive the slight, remember that you’re the adult here, and keep hugging him.
Your hugs convey your love and acceptance. They offer a closeness that tells your son he’s okay and that you care about him no matter what. Your embrace is a safe place for him, a fortress from the daily battle he does at school among his peers. As his parent, you are his constant. Don’t withhold your love from him for any reason—he’s going to mess up, and he needs your support. Your hugs communicate that unconditional love, along with consistently saying, “I love you.”
If you’ve gotten out of the habit and hugging seems unnatural, start small. Pat him on the back or tousle his hair as you ask him about his day. Smile into his angry, near-adult scowl and know he is still your little boy, feeling frustrated and afraid.
He might be sweaty and stinky. Hug him anyway.
He might have acne. Hug him tighter.
He might be selfish and rude. He might recoil. He is testing you, measuring his own uncertain worth by the strength of your love. Show him what real love is by never letting go. Deep down, he craves those hugs. As you persist, one day he’ll relax his stiff posture, and you’ll feel him sag with relief into your arms. He’ll have found his safe haven once again. Now, if you’re lucky, he might even be ready to talk to you.
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