When I Realized My Tweens Still Need Parental Affection

by Rachel Garlinghouse
The Day I Realized My Tweens Need My Parental Affection Too
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

When my seven-year-old son gets off the bus every day, he sprints up our long driveway and straight into my open arms. I cover his face with kisses and ask him how his day was. Then I put my arm around his shoulders and we stroll inside for a much-needed snack. Affection galore? You bet. He’s convinced we are engaged. There is no shame in our affection game.

The same goes for my preschooler. Sometimes she co-sleeps with us. She’s on my hip most of the time, and when she’s not, her body is wrapped around my legs while purring, “I love you, Mommy.” She knows that I can’t ignore her for long, so I’ll scoop her up into a hug and we nuzzle each other. Yes, we’re ridiculous. I also have two more children, both tween daughters. I’m here to confess that it dawned on me recently that at some point, I let go of showering them with physical affection. I don’t know why or exactly when it happened, but it did.

Tweens are in an interesting, confusing season of life. One minute, they are little kids who love to play with their Barbies and action figures, then belt out a request for a PB&J. Then the next minute, they’re begging us for a cell phone, storm off and slam their bedroom doors, and scream that they hate us forever. Their emotions are all over the place (thanks to puberty). The social pressures they endure are beyond exhausting, especially the friend and social media drama.

Tweens work very hard to show us that they have it all together and certainly don’t need us for anything, until they unknowingly slip back into little-kid mode. I mistakenly assumed that since my little girls are now big girls, they don’t need my hugs, bedtime cuddles, kisses, or arm-around-the-shoulders. They’re too cool for that, I unconsciously decided, and thus, my outward affection dwindled.

I was in the kitchen one day with all the kids, trying to pull together some sort of semi-healthy dinner, when my oldest came to me and said a one-word sentence, “Mommy.” This stopped me dead in my tracks. When was the last time she called me that instead of Mom? She wanted to show me an essay she’d written at school that she was especially proud of. She knew that, as a writer, I’d be beyond thrilled to read her clever thoughts and detailed sentences.

It was in that moment, when I had my preschooler tugging on my pants while I attempted to find the skillet I needed, that I realized I had been seriously slacking off on giving my older kids what they probably needed now more than ever. They were no longer chubby babies who relied on me for diaper changes, bathing, feeding, and car seat buckling. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still need me.

I beat myself up over this realization for several days. Maybe I was just trying to respect their personal space and claims of independence? Or perhaps I just got lazy and unintentional in certain areas of parenting? The mom guilt was in overdrive. I don’t know the real reason why I stopped pouring the affection onto my tweens, but I did. And it was time for that to change.

Of course, each of my kids is different. One prefers to look at weird-but-true books together, not engaging in intense eye contact while embracing. Another child thrives on wrestling matches. Meaning, the more physical contact, the better. Whatever works for each kid and parent is what’s right. What isn’t right? Backing away from our kids just because they’re another year older.

I created a connection list for each of my kids, brainstorming what their love languages are. These lists include physical affection, but also activities we can do together. Last weekend, I surprised my oldest tween by ordering gold star decals for her bedroom wall. We put on some jazz and decorated together. I made sure my husband kept the other kids out so my daughter got the one-on-one time she deserved. We took a step back to admire our work, and I put my arm around her shoulders and told her what a great job we did together.

My other tween much prefers talking to each other rather than any hugs or kisses. The sillier we talk, the better. We play rounds of would-you-rather and look through her massive collection of superhero books. No, we aren’t pondering big life questions, which is OK. Our togetherness is centered on her individual needs.

The time I spend connecting with my tweens helps us foster trust when the serious topics do come up. Being a tween really sucked for me back in the early-’90s when I had zero fashion sense or athletic ability, but today’s tweens deal with a lot more. We’ve had conversations about vaping, body consent, bullying, sex, TikTok, and anxiety. I strongly believe that because we’ve taken the time to deepen our parent-child connection, my tweens feel safer talking to me about the tough stuff.

It’s only been a few weeks since I had my ah-ha moment. Though I was initially mortified and ashamed of my lack of awareness, I realized what a gift it was for my tween to walk into the kitchen and call me Mommy. That wake-up call is making a significant and positive difference in our lives. I’m no longer holding my tweens at arm’s length.