When a child crawls into your lap for a full-body hug, holds your hand, kisses your lips or touches your face, as a parent, you feel loved. These expressions of love are priceless and appreciated as when a child enters the teenage years, hugs and hand holds are few and far between. But what if your child lacks the ability or the desire to even begin showing affection? Does this mean that you have failed to teach your child a significant language of love? Not necessarily. Your child, no matter how much affection you show him, may not have physical touch, or affection, as a primary love language.
The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary describes affectionate as “feeling or showing love and affection”. It also uses the word “affection” when describing love. For instance, love is “strong affection for another rising out of kinship or personal ties.” Love and affection go hand in hand and can often be mistaken for another. For example, when you are shown affection, you may feel loved. For some people, who are overly affectionate, others may mistake their hugs, and arm touches for romantic, love feelings when that is not the case.
What is affection
According to Dr. Gary Chapman, author of “The 5 Love Languages”, every person has one type of love language that they identify with and use to communicate, receive and feel loved. Affection and physical touch are one of these. The other four love languages are:
• words of affirmation– giving praise; saying thank you; paying compliments, etc.
• gift giving– giving and receiving gifts such as toys, stuffed animals, candy, jewelry, etc.
• acts of service– doing helpful things such as cleaning a room, doing homework, folding laundry, cooking dinner, etc.
• quality time– spending time with each other playing games, reading books, walking, bicycling, etc.
As you read the list, you probably immediately identify with one love language more than another. Watch how your child interacts. Does he have a dominant love language? If you cannot easily find one, ask yourself what your child gets most upset about. Does he complain when you are too busy and do not have enough time to spend with him? His love language may be quality time. If you see your child get excited and happy when you compliment him, or if he is always saying positive things to you, his love language might be words of affirmation.
Your children and your spouse may have a different love language than you. Everyone in the house might speak a different language. The important thing is to learn how to communicate with everyone to make them feel loved. If your child’s primary love language is not physical touch, he may never be showing affection the way you think he should, so look for other ways he is showing love or being affectionate.
Regardless of how you define affection, you are your child’s first example of an affectionate touch or embrace. Your tender touch will show him love and affection. If you worry about how to be affectionate with your child, just do what feels natural. According to Bible Class Books, the important thing is to show affection. Start with hugging your child or by rubbing their back. Even a pat on the head will do if physical touch is a challenge for you when showing affection.
The more you show affection to your child, the more comfortable it will be for both of you. Let your child see you receive affection from others. If you push your spouse away when he tries to hug and kiss you, your rejection shows your child that you are not comfortable being affectionate. It may be your actions that are preventing him from showing affection to others.
Affection between family members is natural and should not be forced. If your child is uncomfortable hugging or kissing his aunts and uncles, do not pressure him into doing it. That may make him withdraw even more. Respect his boundaries, but encourage affection in the safety of your home.
If even the smallest signs of affection such as a back rub or a hug make your child uncomfortable, consider the idea that he may have an overly sensitive sense of touch. Children on the Autism Spectrum, in particular children with Aspergers, may have tactile sensory issues according to the My Asperger’s Child website. The smallest touch may lead to a sensory overload, which is why certain children avoid showing affection with hugs and kisses- it is simply too much stimulation for them.
Instead of forcing affection on your child with a tactile sensory issue, here are some changes you can make to increase the chances of receiving affection:
- Be prepared for a harsh, possibly violent reaction to a random hug, so time your affectionate touches wisely.
- Kneel down to his level and open your arms to invite him into your space. Use this as an alternative to entering his space and touching him. He may respond better when the affection can be on his terms.
- Use small ways to show affection such as a smile and a thumbs up, or clap of your hands when he does something well.
- Learn to read his cues for when it is safe to enter his personal space. For example, before bed when he is relaxed and calm, he may be ready for a good night hug and kiss.
- Be sure everyone in your home is treating your non-affectionate child the same way. This will help you make progress and hopefully breakthroughs in getting your child to receive and give affection.
It may help you to redefine your idea of and your expectations of affection. Instead of looking for your child to be physically affectionate, you may have to accept other expressions.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reminds that expressions of affection are not solely hugging, holding and touching. Affection definitions also include:
- Facial expressions
- Smiles and laughter
- Tone of voice
- Positive words such as nicknames
- Playful teasing
- Gentle tickling
- Head pats
Some children may want lengthy touches such as cuddling or long hugs, while others only need a smile and a pat on the head. It does not meant that you are doing anything wrong, or that there is anything wrong with your child. Each person is different.
What is important is that you continue to show affection to your child in whatever way works for the two of you. Make adjustments based on your child’s reaction to your affectionate ways. If a smile and calling him “your little man” boost his mood and send him on his way feeling strong and secure, that may be all he needs. On the other hand, if your daughter hangs on you for five minutes before she gets on the bus, that may be the affection she needs to get her through the day.
Showing warmth and affection do impact your child’s emotional and social growth, so even if it is difficult and your child resists, continue to look for alternative ways to be affectionate toward him.
On the opposite end, to solidify your child’s trust in affection, avoid using physical touch as a way of disciplining your child. Do not touch your child with the intent to cause pain and also do not withhold affection when you are upset with your child. He needs to know that affection is consistent, not temporary. That will help him develop into a person who easily gives and receives affection.