Have you hugged your teenager today? If not, I highly recommend it.
A lot of parents tell me that their teenagers aren't too keen on hugs anymore. No matter what avoidance behaviors parents may describe to me, (and I've heard them all) I always encourage them to continue to ask for and to seek out daily nurturing hugs from their kids, regardless of their age. Sometimes, as parents, we get discouraged because our kids arrive at a certain age and their desire for frequent affection starts to wane. Eventually, we realize that those once warm embraces we used to cherish are slowly dissipating and the hugs that we do manage to get don't feel so warm and fuzzy anymore. These new hugs are half-hearted and sometimes unwanted. A lot of parents take this change in affection much too personally. They feel rejected and may even stop offering the hugs in the first place. This is the worst thing a parent can do if they want to stay connected to their teens throughout their journey into adulthood.
Listen up. Your teenagers NEED your hugs. Yes, they are rebuffing them, but that's because it is their JOB. Adolescents are deep into the natural and practical process of individuating. Individuating is hard work, by the way. Most of the time your teen doesn't have the emotional capacity to navigate this work AND worry about your feelings getting hurt. So, don't take it personally because it is not personal.
Individuation is a fancy way of saying that your teenager is showing you that he/she can manage on their own. They aren't totally dependent on Mom and Dad anymore. Teenagers must push parents away in order to begin the process of forming their unique identity - i.e. Individuation. This separation is an ongoing process and will intensify and subside at different times and for different reasons. For many teenagers, this process translates to less physical affection towards their parents. It is totally normal.
These days, when I hug my 15-year-old daughter, she kindly tolerates my hugs. She usually doesn't hug me back but instead she pats me on the head and says, "aww, you're cute," in a patronizing tone. I'm okay with that. She also has shortened her heartfelt "I love you's" to a tossed over the shoulder, "Love Ya," just before she shuts the door.
Instead of dwelling on this change or feeling hurt, I remind myself that I must be doing an okay job as a parent because, well, she didn't say, "Piss off, Mom." She also didn't smother me with hugs in an enmeshed way and say, "Maybe I should just stay home with you today. It's so much safer here and I don't want to go out there into that terrifying world." The fact that her affection response is somewhere squarely in the middle brings me peace of mind.
Research tells us that hugging has a positive impact on people of all ages: “Hugs have been shown to improve overall mood, increase nerve activity, and bring a host of other beneficial effects. Positive physical touch has an immediate anti-stress effect, slowing breathing and heart rate.” (from Hugs & Heart Health) This is why I counsel parents to reach out and hug their teenagers, no matter how resistant (or smelly) they may be. They still need your embrace.
The next time you want a hug from your evasive teenager, try saying "Hey, can I get a hug?" If they begrudgingly agree, then thank them and hug them tight. Tell them you love them. Tell them you are thankful for them.
If, however, their answer is "God, Mom, what is with you? You are practically a stalker right now." Just agree with them calmly and offer, "you don't even have to hug me back. Just humor me...please." If that ninja mind trick fails, then say "okay, well, I understand you need your space right now, but I am taking a raincheck. I'd love at least one hug before you go to bed tonight."
Be relentless but respectful. Armed with a calm, loving, and consistent strategy, you'll definitely increase the amount of successfully executed hugs from your teenager. In addition, your actions will show them that you love them unconditionally (even if you don't particularly like them at times) and it will communicate to them that showing your love through affection is an important value for your family.
Eventually, your teens will come around and will want hugs from you again. In the meantime, be patient, be loving, and always always...be ready. You never know when they will seek you out for the hug that they desperately need after a turbulent day. The odds that they will come to you for that much needed hug are vastly greater if you consistently show your teenager that you have not and will not let up on your pursuit of daily hugs.
Good luck and happy hugging!