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What Makes Kids Stop Displaying Public Affection?

Children naturally start to break away from their parents as they grow up, but it still stings.

It’s as if I just woke up one morning to find that something had taken over my child. My son had always been verbally and physically affectionate with me, often wooing admiring women at the grocery store. On his own accord, he would wrap his arms around me as I stood in line and say with his soft but confident voice, “Mom, I love you.”

I could feel mothers and grandmothers around me melting at his sweet and self-motivated gesture. It happened on many occasions, and I was always very proud knowing that I was a coveted recipient and the envy of others. My child was not embarrassed to display how much he loves me, something I was honored to receive.

In the car driving here and there, my son would often softly scratch my arm or play with my hair as we chatted on the way to school in the mornings. I always cherished these short moments knowing that eventually one day – far in the distant future – this openness would probably come to an end. What I didn’t realize was that this change would occur sooner than later, and I know that I’m not ready to let go.

He is 11 years old, and it’s the summer before he transitions into middle school – a higher ranking that apparently provokes a metamorphosis on many levels. My cute, charming boy is evolving into a self-conscious preteen who is difficult to recognize some days.  Walking into a restaurant last week, I simply extended my arm around his shoulder only to feel an instant retraction, not unlike a victim recoiling from a predator. My senses could not immediately comprehend what just happened. Was he sick? Was he just grumpy?

The response was immediate, and one that I didn’t expect and wasn't emotionally prepared for. No one told me it would happen like this, so suddenly. I tried to hide the anguish on my face, and I felt emotion welling up inside of me. Am I losing the connection that I have with my son, my youngest? I asked him why he pulled away like that, and he smugly replied, “I just don’t want you hugging me right now.”

Torture. He may as well have stuck a knife in my heart and twisted it a few times just to ensure I felt every bit of the jab. Look, I know that raising independent kids is our obligation as parents. I want my children to feel confident to go out into the world as responsible humans and venture into new experiences with the wisdom, traditions and morals that they were raised to value. But when did it become OK for our kids to reject the affection of those who brought them into this world? 

Deep down, I know that this is a natural progression and one that is inevitable. Some kids start to break away in baby steps, while others seem to cut their parents off cold turkey. I did the same to my parents during my middle adolescence more so than any of my siblings. Looking back now, I understand that there was no value to resisting affection.

Lisa Hein, a motivational speaker, author of the book I'm Doing The Best I Can! and host of the Everyday Parenting talk show heard on www.RadioEarNetwork.com every Tuesday at 10 a.m., provides advice for parents going through this natural separation with their children. Based on experiencing this transition with her own son, she relates:

“We must embrace every moment that our children allow us to be a part of their lives, because before you blink your eyes, they will be on their own journey leaving you behind (except when they need a favor!). Children today are more independent and it is our job to be available, as much as we can. When the separation begins, we should honor this next step rather than dreading it. When we allow them to begin making decisions on their own and we respect their individuality, we empower them to be healthy, young adults.”

OK, she’s right. She’s very right. Ugh. I know I must accept the fact that my little man-cub is maturing and just testing out his independence. I know that I should probably resign to limiting my affections in public, but there is no way that I will ever completely relinquish my right as a mother to show my love and commitment to my kids. They won’t get off that easy.

As I was driving with my son this morning, my cellphone buzzed. As I read my text, my son smiled at me, shrugged his shoulders and looked out the window. The text read, “I love you – Matthew.” My heart smiled. A minute later his cell buzzed, “I love you, too.”

Check out upcoming family events in St. Petersburg to find ideas for spending quality time with your kids.

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