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Sunday, April 3, 2011

I HEART Snuggling!

Something you need to know about me:  I’m a big fan of snuggling! Anything to put-off getting out of bed and delay the morning rush-to-school routine, especially on rainy mornings. Snuggling is one of the most important ways I have bonded with my children. And a secure parent-child bond you now know is highly correlated with being well-adjusted and being less likely to engage in risky behaviors.  Even more importantly, securely attached kids are more likely to possess emotional and social courage

Of course as my kids have grown, snuggling can now be as rare and special as spotting a shooting star across the night sky.  Hugging my now 5' 10" thirteen-year old is sometimes as awkward as hugging a wall.  And my fifth grade daughter announced to me after her first day of school, as I tucked her into bed: “Mom, you need to know that as a fifth grader I will not be snuggling with you much anymore.  Fifth graders just don’t do that.”

Which got me thinking: How do we continue to nurture the parent-child bond, and thus the courage necessary to love another human being, when snuggling ends? 
Knowing what I do about the importance of physical touch and affection to help us human beings stay connected, I still sneak in as many hugs as I can.  And, with resignation, I accept my kids’ need for more space at times and cherish those momentary hugs.  Each time my kids now eschew my embraces, I secretly want to clutch my chest and fall dramatically to the floor—mostly for the hopeful effect of changing their minds.  I can be kind of manipulative when it comes to getting my needs met.  Lucky for my kids, I’m a little more evolved than that. I also know all the important stuff about honoring our kids’ boundaries.  Eight years of psychology graduate school will drill good interpersonal boundaries, if nothing else, into you.  It’s very important that we take our kids lead when it comes to their need for physical space and privacy as they grow—even if it means you being the first to shut the bathroom door for privacy. 

Copyright Andres Rodriguez, Dreamstime.com
I’m relieved when I tell a friend that my snuggling days may be over, and she shares that her fourteen-year old daughter still crawls into bed on Saturday mornings to chat about her week.  I love seeing a very tall, and in my books very cool, college student wrap his/her arms lovingly around a parent walking down the street.  These snugly kids aren’t wallflowers in life.  They aren’t weak because they still want their parents’ arms around them.  On the contrary, securely attached children waltz into the world with confidence.  

The great thing about snuggling is that it calms the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system--that 'fight-or-flight', 'tend-or-befriend' response system.  It can be snuggles with your kid or even the family pet (a highly worthwhile family investment for the ‘tween or teen years).  The sympathetic nervous system doesn’t differentiate skin from fur.   In fact, most positive social interactions involve that same calming hormone oxytocin that I’ve written about in previous posts.  I also notice that it is in those moments of calm presence with my kids, that they share the juiciest bits of wisdom. 

Let’s be clear, these days “snuggling” looks more like all of us piled into bed watching comedy on Wednesday nights.  Or me lying in bed reading, when my son collapses on my bed (after his supposed bedtime) to tell me about a funny YouTube clip or how many ergs he pulled at rowing practice.  I have to remember that these moments are in increasingly dwindling supply, so I put down my book and just listen. 

In some ways one of my primary “love languages” (physical touch), according to Dr. Chapman (1992), is now shifting to match my children's desire for words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, and/or receiving other gifts I have to offer (not just material goods!) Click here and you can take Dr. Chapman's assessment to figure out your primary love language.  Dr. Chapman is a pastoral and marriage counselor who believes that we all have five common love languages to express our care and love, some of us favor one or more particular love expressions over others...you can decide if his work is useful to you after taking the assessment.














Fortunately for me, and I believe for my daughter, her decision to cut off snuggles only lasted about a week.  The first sign of social or homework distress at school, she was back in my arms to confide her troubles and share her successes.  And we've been reading books together again at bedtime, when we can, to make sure to have connect time at the end of the busy days. 

So, since snuggling’s back on…my girl crawls in beside me when I decide to have a quick nap yesterday.  She’s been feeling sick this week and particularly soft, open, and slightly vulnerable.  We relax into a kind of meditative state where we both access our most heartfelt questions and cares.  I ask her, “Do you think I’ve raised you to be courageous in life?”  (I know…it’s a loaded question now that she sees me writing a blog, researching, and coaching parents about nurturing courage in kids.) Fortunately, for me, she’s fiercely loyal and always tells the truth. “Yeah, mom, you have.  You don’t prevent me from trying new things because you are worried I might hurt myself.  You don’t fuss over us like that.  And you don’t push me too hard.  Like the way you’ve helped me with riding roller coasters.  You respect that I don’t like them, but keep offering me the chance to ride with you if I want to.  You let me make my own choice.  And because you do that, it makes me want to try new things.  It makes me trust myself.” 

So there you have it, the kernel of wisdom so integral to nurturing courage in our kids:  know when to push and when to step back

Keep offering up those hugs, your listening presence, and modeling the emotional and social courage it takes to be truly connected with family and friends...and know it's a healthy sign of your kids' own development when they feel safe enough to say "No", "I need some space", or "I'm not ready to try the roller coaster (or whatever the courage challenge may be) yet."

Be sure to read my next post “Discourage/Encourage: What's a Parent To Do?” for tips on how to know when it’s time to push your child towards facing a fear or conquering a courage challenge, and when to step back, regroup, and let them take the lead. 


Sources:

Uvnäs-Moberg (1998). Oxytocin may mediate the benefits of positive social interaction and emotions. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23, (8), 819-835. doi:10.1016/S0306-4530(98)00056-0 

Cooper, M. L., Shaver, P., & Collins, N. Attachment styles, emotion regulation, and adjustment in adolescence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, (5), 1380-1397.

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