When Appleton mom of four Stacy Summers drives her two teenage daughters — Millie, 16, and Sophie, 13 — to events or friends' houses, she follows a standard farewell protocol.
"I'll say, 'Remember who you are,' we'll wave, and they'll walk to wherever they're going," she said. Then just before they step inside, she added, "They'll turn and wave again."
Summers loves this subtle sign of affection that has endured into her daughters' teen years. "They just know I'll sit there until we've had that second wave," she said.
It's a reassurance for both parent and child, but one that neither disappoints nor mortifies either party. It's just right for a young person in the gradual throes of separating herself from her parents.
While the line between showing teenagers you care and embarrassing them in front of their friends can prove difficult for parents to walk, it's critical that they do so, said Christine Vander Wielen, a clinical therapist with Menasha's Center for Family Healing and mom to 8- and 13-year-old girls.
"It's about showing the teen support," she said. "Part of affection is letting kids know, 'I love you. I'm here for you. You're OK.'"
Offering affection appropriately when parenting teens lies in finding the means to do so that works for your child. Here, a few ideas that can help you accomplish just that:
Expect That It's Coming
Frank Cummings, Ph.D., owner and president of Psychology Associates of the Fox Cities in Appleton, went through the teenage transition many years ago with his 23-year-old son but still remembers clearly that it started during middle school.
"It's right around adolescence when it's like, 'OK, drop me off two blocks from school,'" he said.
Vander Wielen agrees. "Kids usually start to withdraw from their parents' public affections between the ages of 10 and 12."
The reason is simple: They don't want to be seen by their peers as too reliant on Mom and Dad.
"It's at this time that kids start to become independent of their parents," Vander Wielen said.
Deflecting hugs and kisses is one way to do that, a practice that girls engage in earlier than boys.
"Girls tend to receive more affection from their parents, according to studies, and they tend to shy away from it earlier," Vander Wielen said.
Talk About It
Though teens and tweens may duck your embrace in front of their friends, that doesn't mean they don't still want it in other situations.
"Some teens will continue to need affection from parents and will openly ask for it and give it," Vander Wielen said.
Others, though, will not. Cummings likes to frame this issue in terms of the five love languages conceived by author Gary Chapman: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch.
Like adults, teens respond to different kinds of love, Cummings said, and it's up to parents to uncover how best to communicate their love to each of their children. That, he said, is usually simple.
"Just ask them," he said. "Generally, kids will tell you what's important."
An experience several years ago crystallized for Summers that taking cues from her kids on the affection front was the way to go. She and Millie, then 10, were walking through the mall when Millie surprised her mom by reaching up to take her hand.
"I thought, 'From this day forward, I'm going to let her take the lead,'" Summers said.
"They give us signals, and we need to look for those," Vander Wielen said. "Ideally, you want there to be open communication where the child says, 'Please don't do that. I'm uncomfortable.' You allow the child to redefine what's comfortable."
Take Another Tack
Though they may not relish public displays of affection, most teenagers still crave their parents' loving attention and support. Delivering it in ways that are both comfortable and meaningful calls for some inventiveness on the part of Mom and Dad.
"Parents can be creative with that. It might be a note in their backpack. It might be working out a code with their teenager," Vander Wielen said.
For example, families might say "I love you" silently in American Sign Language or speak the words in French or Spanish. Parents also could co-opt Carol Burnett's trademark ear tug, a gesture she made at the end of each episode of her eponymous TV show to let her grandmother know she loved her. Or they could invent a signal all their own, as Summers has.
"I try and wink at them — something that's not as blatant as grabbing them and kissing their cheek," she said.
Simply taking affection down a notch works for some.
"The parent can tone it down where instead of a hug, maybe it's a touch on the arm or back," Vander Wielen said.
Whatever the case, getting your teen's permission is key — even at home.
"The parent should do what's comfortable for the teen first," Vander Wielen said.
These days, there are few places more comfortable for teens than the world of digital communication, so Summers has found ways to show her daughters her love in the language oftext messages and Facebook wall posts.
"They think that's cool, and I think it's cool when I get it back," she said.
Meeting kids on their turf is a great idea, Vander Wielen said. "You can kind of enter their world then and be nonjudgmental about it and just be with them, be present."
You can also invite teens into your world, particularly when you're at the wheel.
"Something I've seen work very effectively is a drive in the car, especially if there's a little bit of tension," Vander Wielen said.
In such an environment, the distractions and lack of eye contact can make connecting with teens easier. "It's more relaxing," Vander Wielen said.
However and wherever they show affection, parents should know that even when their teens shrug it off, they still need it.
"Parental affection has enormous impact on teenagers," Vander Wielen said.
"I can't tell you how many teens I've had in my office over the years who've brought this up, who've wanted more fun time with their parents. It gives the kids a sense of belonging."
When that's there, relationships thrive, if Summers' family serves as an example. Though she heard from friends that she should brace herself for the teen years, she said, "We are having the time of our lives. I love it.
"It's fun getting to know them and the young women they're becoming."