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At what age should my child stop giving me a kiss? Or a cuddle?

Let’s start with the reality – there is no right answer to this. But – and this might be controversial to say – there are some WRONG answers to this. One of the points that I would like to make very clearly at the start is that we should be teaching our young people from a really early age about body autonomy and consent. This includes helping very young children/toddlers recognise that they can choose how they want to physically interact with us, their family members, friends and everyday people. Being given the choice to have physical contact (high five, hug, kiss) should be a decision that the child gets to make, not the adult. There is societal pressure that children should greet certain people in certain ways e.g. grandparents should get a hug and a kiss, or we should hug our friends goodbye. That message is an adult one and meets the needs of adults, not the child.

While the above is a fundamental point, this article is more about how do we show age-appropriate affection as kids get older. It is helpful to think about what the purpose of showing affection is (seems obvious but…is it?). It helps with bonding, connection, acknowledgement, co-regulation, communication, reinforcement, and more. As your children get older, they/you will need/want different aspects of affection to be more dominant. For example, a very young child will greatly benefit from affection as part of bonding, a teenager might get a lot of benefit from affection as a form of acknowledgement.

So it is important that we move with our child and adapt our ways of displaying affection that meet their need, and yours. Remember, a good relationship should be meeting the needs of BOTH people. Possibly controversially again, but while it might be funny to think that mum giving their teenager a big kiss and the teenager is all shy and embarrassed and that’s ok, it might suggest that this is not an appropriate display of affection. In this case, the teen is giving the message that this isn’t what they want, and likely it is about primarily meeting the parents needs. What can you do about this then?

– There are stacks of ways to show affection, and no one way is superior to others. Handshake, clap on the shoulder, ruffling their hair, squeezing a hand, thumbs up, fist bump, high five, a wink, snuggling, a wave, a hand on the back, hugs, kisses. What have I missed?

– Of course, there are also a huge amount of verbal ways we can display affection as well

– If your child seems uncomfortable with some kind of display of affection, talk to them about it. Ask them whether it bothers them and see what you can do instead. This can be tough for us as a parent to hear that our kids might not want big hugs anymore, but that is part of us being the adult in the relationship and managing our own feelings

– Recognise the importance of context for different affection. What might be ok at home, might not be ok in front of friends. That is important learning for your child to establish boundaries that suit their context

While we’re talking about showing affection, what sits beneath this is how we, as parents, move and change with the shifting needs of our child. Being responsive to them helps to reinforce their development and allows you both to continue connecting in new and evolving ways.

At ConnectEd Counselling and Consultancy, we believe that all families, and the communities they belong to, benefit from a little extra care and support. Whether the problems are big or small, we want to make sure everyone has the chance to feel connected – to themselves, to others and to their community. We offer counselling services to young people and families and have immediate availability. If you need some support, get in touch here: www.connectedcc.com.au

(Written by: Dr Matt O’Connor)

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