I have a 9 year old son, who is a great kid, smart, responsible, good with his younger brothers. Up until recently he has been very affectionate – he liked to give hugs and would kiss us goodbye. Just recently he has started to pull away and it’s kind of concerning. I don’t think he’s trying to be disrespectful or anything. But I go to kiss him goodnight and he says “No thanks.” I don’t want to make him do things that are uncomfortable – I kind of remember from my childhood not being very physically affectionate with my parents, but I still want to be able to kiss him goodnight and tell him I love him. So I’m hoping you have some suggestions.
Ralph, in Las Vegas, NV
A: The short answer is, you’re both right.
Your son is right to let you know what makes him uncomfortable. It is entirely normal for a nine year old guy to want to change his interactions with his parents, especially his physical relationship. His body is changing, his ideas about how to use his body and what it is for are changing, his comfort level with touching is changing, and his views about how he wants his parents to treat him are changing! It’s the beginning of puberty – welcome!
And you’re right: he needs to see and feel your love as much as he ever did when he was little.
You mention that he isn’t being disrespectful. It’s terrific that he isn’t, and even better that you noticed. How easy it is to take our children’s rejection of displays of affection as rejection of us and the family unit. Especially since these behaviors usually crop up at the same time that kids are starting to want to spend time with friends more and us less.
I want to mention that it’s not only nine year olds who feel weird about this. Some children (boys AND girls) are just more private. And some are less comfortable with touching than others. True of adults, too, right?
You have a great opportunity here, to show him respect and still give him the love he needs. Model respect by respecting your son’s boundaries. But don’t stop showing him affection! Talk to him. Tell him you love him too much to stop showing it, but you don’t want him to be uncomfortable. Ask him to help you find a solution. You guys need a secret phrase that means “I love you.” And a secret signal that can replace the hug or kiss when he prefers.
My husband and sons have a code. “Go Steelers!” means “I love you.” And they have this complicated fist-bump-hand-fireworks ritual thing that serves as a hug or kiss when anyone else is around. Or just when one of the kids prefers it. I’ve noticed that, since he gives them a choice, the older boys do hug and kiss a little more than they used to. Like most people, they like having the choice and the autonomy to make that choice without guilt.
There is good news here. Most kids go through this developmental phase – and it can be a long one! But most of them, especially when we respect their boundaries, come back to being physically affectionate later.
Kids need strong dads! An important part of being a strong dad is showing your kids that, whether they want it or not, your love and support is a fact. Your son is a lucky guy.