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Child Caring

Why doesn't her son like to hug?

Dear Barbara, my only boy is 16 years old and still doesn't like to be hugged and kissed by myself or his sisters leave alone grandmothers or any other person. He will tolerate us, but then pushes us away. He likes it when I rub his back or massage him, but pulls away from any physical affection. We are a stable, loving family and we spend a lot of family time together and he will participate normally. What I also find strange is that he doesn't make eye contact with adults or teachers and the teachers find this offending. He listens to them by turning his ear towards them. There is nothing wrong with his hearing either. He is a good mannered child with no rebellious actions, but I am worried that this will cause problems in adulthood. Please advise.

From: Affectionate Mom, Namibia


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Dear Affectionate Mom,

A physical aversion to hugging can sometimes surface in a young child as an inability to tolerate certain physical contact that can include shirt labels rubbing against the skin or having skin contact with some rough fabrics, and it can extend to physical touching. It's not typically an issue of sexuality but rather, if it reaches the level of a diagnoses, it's typically known as "tactile defensiveness" or "Fragile X syndrome." It could also be that the affection he sees among you and your daughters feels smothering to him (literally or figuratively) or just unmanly.

One family I know used humor to get past the awkwardness by inventing the "air hug," where the two people put their arms around each other but the bodies stay wide apart. It was so funny, it caught on in the extended family. As a teen, the boy gradually learned to tolerate minimal hugging.

It sounds like you are worried he will not be able to have physical intimacy as an adult. Because he's 16, on the brink of manhood, it will be up to him to figure out when and how -- and perhaps if -- he will compensate. If he ever talks about this as his concern, you might be able to help him find appropriate therapy. Otherwise, don't make him feel guilty for not hugging you, help him find alternatives for showing his love and affection to family (notes, cards, art) and, generally, back off.