Dear Other Dad —
I’m having an issue with one of my dads. He knows I don’t like to give hugs, but he thinks that rule applies only to people outside our family and that I should still hug him. I told him when I was 10 that I’m not a hugger (I’m 15 now). Sometimes he’ll listen but mostly not. His family is very touchy — like his mom still pats him on the butt even though he’s 50. So I know why he thinks physical affection is important. But what about private space?
— Hands Off
When my daughter was 12, my ex-husband and I signed her up for a program called Our Whole Lives (OWL), a weekly sexuality education class led by our local Unitarian Universalist church. We wanted her to learn how to take care of her body, make good choices, and understand sex from multiple angles, including physical and spiritual. One of the topics the class covered was agency, which is the issue you and your dad are struggling over.
Agency means having the ability to determine your own actions and have control over behavior in a situation. One way that can be applied is physical agency: the right to choose how to use your body, including whether you want physical contact. My daughter came home from OWL class psyched to have language for something she had long felt: she doesn’t like hugs. At OWL, they taught her that a kid with agency can say no to hugs (or tickling or sitting on someone’s lap, etc).
This was hard to get used to, especially for dads who had practiced attachment parenting, which uses close physical contact to build a baby’s sense of safety and trust. We both struggled with the no-hug edict at the time; I remember hoping maybe it was a phase she would grow out of, but I soon had to make peace with the idea that the era of hugs was over. (The fact that she trusted us enough to say something she knew we wouldn’t like seemed, at least, like proof that attachment parenting worked!)
It’s been four years and she hasn’t outgrown this stance; she’s settled into it. Occasionally, she will initiate a side-hug, but mostly she expresses closeness in other ways, sitting next to me on the couch or sleeping with her head on my shoulder during a flight. I value those moments (and am smart enough never to make a big deal of them). But I also see how she maintains connection in other ways: texting me TikToks she wants me to see, asking me to play an X-Box game with her, and so on.
Your dad is craving the physical connection that he was raised with and that he enjoyed with you up till now. He’s having a hard time accepting that your affection for him doesn’t take the form he expects it to. This is the parent-child version of conflicting love languages. Physicality might be his dominant love language, where quality time might be yours. Thinking of the conflict this way may help you understand why it’s so hard for him to change.
Even so, you have every right to expect your wish to be honored. There could be many reasons you don’t like to be touched, but it’s not actually a rare condition, and the struggle you’re having with your dad is really common. It might help him to know that a lot of other parents also go through this. (Show him this column.)
Remind him that you are not rejecting him; you are rejecting only behaviors you do not enjoy. Then catalog the ways you perceive yourself as showing love to your dad — maybe you have weekly rituals you keep, running jokes you tell, activities you do together, or time you always spend with him. Tell him that these are the kind of “hugs” you give. (And if you can’t think of any ways you show love, you should probably work on that!)
Together, choose a reminder you may use to keep him from invading your space. Maybe come up with a signal (crossed arms or the traffic cop gesture for stop) or a verbal cue (say “space” or “boundaries”). Deploy the agreed-upon signal anytime he comes in for the hug or goes for the pat. Be consistent about it, until he’s associated your negative response with his behavior. As he starts to do better, thank him and praise him. Let him know you appreciate the respect he is showing for your autonomy.
It’s an age-old tactic: offer negative associations for one behavior and reward the opposite. Essentially, you’ll be training him using the same methods he used on you as a toddler. If you’re lucky, the skills he develops now will last just as long as the ones you learned from him.
Previously Published on medium
You Might Also Like These From The Good Men Project
|Compliments Men Want to Hear More Often||Relationships Aren’t Easy, But They’re Worth It||The One Thing Men Want More Than Sex||..A Man’s Kiss Tells You Everything|
Join The Good Men Project as a Premium Member today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
A $50 annual membership gives you an all access pass. You can be a part of every call, group, class and community.
A $25 annual membership gives you access to one class, one Social Interest group and our online communities.
A $12 annual membership gives you access to our Friday calls with the publisher, our online community.
Register New Account
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: iStock