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What Teens Need: Love, Attention, Affection
When children are small, they want nothing more than loving attention from the adults in their world: a hand to hold or a lap on which to sit. Other than wiping noses, primary school teachers spend more time handing out hugs than they have energy for. However, as they grow and develop, teenagers are much harder to read. That’s because, when it comes to affection, they aren’t really sure what they do or do not want.
That’s okay. They needn’t decide. As loving, caring adults, we know that although they may say they don’t want or need our affection, they do. And we are here to provide it.
Dr. Laurence Steinberg, author and leading authority on adolescence, poignantly reminds us, “[A child] will not be harmed by being told every single day that you love him…. Your child will not be hurt by being showered with physical affection, with care, and with praise when it’s heartfelt and well deserved. Don’t hold back your affection or act aloof because you think your child will become spoiled by all the attention.” It’s a perfect reminder that love never hurt anyone.
A Distancing Act
As our teens begin to distance themselves in a search for and show of independence, the touchy-feely stuff becomes more than just uninvited. It becomes an annoyance. They pull away with agrimace. They respond with a verbal “Yuck,” a nonverbal cold shoulder or even one of each. One mom shared that putting her arms around her teen is like trying to hug a porcupine.
That does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t try. Do not take any rejection you may receive personally. Teens absolutely do want to be loved. They want us to reach out to them. They want us to remind them that they are lovable and that they are loved. They want that show of attention and affection, even as they are strong-arming away our attempts.
And honestly, although they’d say they don’t, they truly appreciate all your efforts at showing them sincere and honest affection. So rather than accepting their seeming indifference, keep trying. Keep telling them how much you care. It means so much. It tells them that they are worth your love, which is truly the most important thing in their lives.
The Journey Begins
As children begin to grow and search for that sense of independence, many begin to push aside the things they now see as childish. Some view as immature the things they liked to do when they were younger. They want to be more grown up. Giving and accepting affection is sometimes a part of what they now see as childish. “I’m not a baby anymore,” they tell the world. They want desperately to redefine themselves as young adults, and they struggle to find ways to do so.
As a result, teens can become unresponsive. You show your affection and they show you a scowl. You offer up a hug and they shirk your attempts. This certainly does not mean that your teens do not want and, more importantly, do not need your affection. You must continue to offer it. You must continue to find ways to express how much you care. Through both physical and verbal affection, your teens will begin to understand that they can count on you.
Truthfully, many of our teens need not only more affection than they will admit they want, they need more affection than they, in reality, get. Some of this lack is, of course, because they are withdrawing from those ready to bestow that affection. Some of this lack is a natural part of mothers and fathers learning how to continue to show affection to their children of the opposite gender. And some of this lack is due to parents answering the calls- or rather the grunts and groans of their teens – and believing that their children no longer want or need to be shown affection.
But the absolute truth is that these growing and maturing beings continue to have a very real need for affection. Don’t we all?
How to Show You Care
If you’ve worked with younger children, you know how much easier they can be when it comes to building a relationship with them. All you have to do is sit them in a circle, hold hands and tell a fun story. You are their hero for life.
Teens, as we know, are far more difficult to convince. “Sure,” they think, “this guy/gal says he/she cares about me, but why should I believe that? And even more, why would I accept any affection from him/her? After all, I’m thirteen/sixteen/eighteen years old! No huggy-bear/kissy-face for me. I am an adult!”
Never forget, though, that these teens need us and they need our honest affection. Be persistent. Showing your non-threatening but sincerely genuine affection works. It impacts teenagers’ lives. And when it does, you’ll reap truly grand rewards. You’ll be their hero for life.
Those Three Little Words
It’s a little tricky to say “I love you” when you work with other people’s teens. The boundaries of both verbal and physical affection are different than when you are dealing with younger children or children of your own. I believe, however, that it’s okay to tell your teens you love them. Say it to the group. Say it lightly. You can even say it with humor. But say it. And say it often. “I love you guys.” Simple, non-threatening and very effective. “You goof-balls are the best. I love each and every one of you.”
Act As Though You Like Them (Because You Do)
Teens are smart. You can give them all the hugs and metaphorical kisses you’d like, but if you don’t like who they are as individuals, they’ll know it. So be sure to act as though you like them.
In fact, you do like them, so be sure they realize it. They will interpret that genuine fondness as honest affection, because it is. Spending time with them, sharing their interests, really talking to them and being interested in what they have to say are all ways to show your honest affection. They’ll feel it, they’ll believe it and they’ll respond.
Remain Rock Solid
Reaffirm that you are there for them. Many teens today live in dysfunctional homes. Some have been literally abandoned and live without their parents. Others live without much affection at all, which is why it is so important that you build an affectionate relationship with each and every one of them. Only then will they trust that you will continue to be there for them. They will begin to rely on you, and it’s up to you not to let them down. Even when they are irritating and irksome, your honest, sincere affection must remain as solid ground beneath their feet. They must know that they can count on you to be there. You will not abandon them.
Hug and Run
Similar to a hit and run only much warmer and fuzzier is the hug and run. A little nudge, a ruffle of the hair, a couple of quick (and gentle) taps on the cheek or chin all say, “I care about you.”
And because you do it fast and furious and then are gone, you haven’t made a big messy ordeal of the affection. Your teens will appreciate the subtlety. In fact, don’t even look back as you go. Your teens may be making faces but, trust me, they understand what you’re up to and they appreciate it. Even if you hear them grimacing aloud, be persistent. You love them. Period. End of story. Nothing to be ashamed of and you’re not to be deterred. They’ll get it. And whether they show you or not, they will love you back.
The Touchy-Feely Stuff
Just as it is when you tell other people’s teens that you love them, it can be equally awkward or even more so to give them any type of physical affection. It is, however, equally important. They may get too uncomfortable and start to squirm if you go in for a bear hug, but you can certainly give them a pat on the back. You can give them a double high five. You can give them a little head rub or simply grab their shoulders and look them in the eye as you say, “Great job.” The demonstrations of your affection don’t have to be huge or even long-lasting. But they need to be honest and sincere……
Chapter 4 Questions for Reflection/Discussion
1. One of the teens in your charge continues to isolate himself from you and from the group. None of your attempts at showing him honest affection have been successful. He is withdrawn and often borders on being recalcitrant. Brainstorm ideas to try to pull him more actively into the group.
2. Several of your more frustrating teens have begun a mini-rebellion of sorts. They are rabble-rousing, difficult and unresponsive to your attempts at showing any type of affection. When you get to the bottom of the trouble, you find that the main instigator is a teen who was abandoned as a very young child and, because of his habit of causing trouble, has been passed around through several foster homes. Consider what you might do to help this teen.
3. A mother comes to you and expresses extreme displeasure at your small and non-intrusive shows of affection toward her child. How might you handle this?
4. Although your attempts to show your group honest affection have been sincere and, in your eyes, completely fair and impartial, a few teens approach you saying you are playing favorites. It is obvious, in their eyes, that you have what they call “pets.” Consider how you might respond.