I could write fifty thousand words (at least) about why showing children affection is beneficial to their development and mental health. No, I don’t mean forced physical affection. I mean hugs, high fives, eye contact, verbal praise, and general excitement to be around them.
When a parent picks up their child from daycare, they should light up when they make eye contact with their kid. That’s affection. They should be interested in how their kid’s day has gone. That’s affection, too. Anything that communicates to a child that they’re loved, valued, and cherished is affection.
A few weeks ago, my relationship with my foster daughter was so damaged, and I was so burnt out mentally, that I felt completely unable to show her any type of affection. I felt anxiety when I was on my way to pick her up from after-school care. When she walked into a room, I tensed up. Any time she hovered around me because she needed affection but didn’t know how to say it, I found myself making excuses to walk away.
It had nothing to do with not loving her. I love that child as if she’s my own flesh and blood, and I can’t imagine a moment of my life without being her mother. HOWEVER… I was so completely burnt out. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you can understand what it’s like to be so empty emotionally that you have nothing to give your child.
My girl is at a really tough age–just in general–but she also comes from a background of trauma so her negative behavior is exacerbated by unresolved emotional issues. She’s more perceptive than the average child so she knows how to push just the right buttons to get under someone’s skin. She also reflexively withdraws from people when she senses that she’s becoming a burden to them.
And I’m exactly the same. She is so similar to me in how she reacts to emotional situations that you’d think she grew in my womb. I, too, withdraw from people when I feel like a burden.
Do you see how this problem could have formed a constant loop?
Let me show you how it goes.
She acts out. I become overwhelmed. She senses my exhaustion. She feels like a burden. She withdraws. I become hurt by her emotional withdrawal. I reduce the amount of affection I show her because she has hurt my feelings. She senses my withdraw. She becomes MORE desperate for affection. I become more put-off. Her behavior becomes worse. And it keeps going and going.
We’ve fostered her for thirteen months, but I’ve never struggled to emotionally connect with her. I LOVE hugging her and holding her close. I genuinely like spending time with her.
But a couple months ago, I went through trauma in my own life, and suddenly I wasn’t able to connect with her anymore. All the ways I used to fill her emotional cup became too much for me to bear because I was empty inside.
And the less I provided emotional support for her, the more hostile she became. The more hostile she became, the more tired I felt.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that we needed time away from each other. I’ve never used respite care (licensed babysitting for foster children), but I knew I had to before we completely destroyed our ability to live together. She needed a break from feeling disappointed in me, and I needed a break from being needed.
We took a week apart from each other, and it completely changed the game.
Since she’s been home, we’ve been back to our old selves. It’s shown me so clearly just how important relational outpouring is to children. When we feel frustrated with them, we can’t withhold our affection because it teaches them that affection must be earned.
In the same way that our love must be given without strings, our affection must also be given without strings.
I’ve heard parents say before, “I want my child to know that when they do something hurtful, there are emotional consequences to that. When we hurt people emotionally, they don’t want to be around us or hug us anymore. Kids should know that.”
I completely understand that sentiment, and I agree with it. But I think that’s a social complexity within friend groups, rather than the consequence of what should happen between a parent and a child.
Kids need to learn that there are relational consequences when they’re unkind to those who love them, but they need to learn that through friends, teammates, classmates, coaches, and teachers – NOT through their parents.
As difficult as it is sometimes, parents have to be the unmovable forces that love their children no matter what happens. They have to show affection and pour into their children emotionally even when they think they can’t. Can they have boundaries? Of course. But affection can’t be one of those boundaries.
Hug them when you don’t want to. Snuggle them when they cry, even when they’re crying because they got in trouble for being mean to you. Smile when you pick them up from school, even if it’s forced. Invite them to cook with you instead of asking them for space. Tuck them in at night instead of relying on them to put themselves to sleep.
Give yourself a “time in” with them instead of a time out. Take time away when you need it, but make sure your time IN is intentional and refueling for them.
YOU have to be the one who puts forth the first emotional effort. Not them. Removing that affection will only make the problem worse, and if we can’t expect ourselves to act kind when we feeling incapable, how can we expect our children to do so?