I’m not a touchy-feely person. I don’t like to cuddle. It feels weird to me because It’s hot and uncomfortable and too much touching makes my skin feel crawly. I don’t like hugs from relatives or even friends really. So I like to keep my space on the couch during Netflix. I just do.
When I was a kid, we didn’t hug, kiss, or cuddle. It didn’t mess me up; it’s just the way we were. My wife doesn’t care about me not cuddling with her, but she wants me to hug my kids. She always tells them to hug me even though she knows I’m not really into it. She keeps forcing these kid hugs on me and I feel super uncomfortable about it. If it happens in public I get really embarrassed and kind of angry.
I know dads are supposed to hug their kids but I really don’t like it. Can I just make them stop?
Snuggle-free in San Diego
The short answer to your question is that yes, of course, you can make them stop. You are a big strong man and they are children. You could stiff-arm the little suckers all day long. You don’t, likely because you’d feel guilty if you did. But guilt is a bad reason to wrap your arms around anyone. It’s my goal to maybe give you a better reason to be a bit more free with your fatherly embrace.
Look, I get that at the core of your question is a deep discomfort with physical closeness. I’m not going to make speculations about where that discomfort is rooted, or try to attempt some armchair therapy to help you get over it. You are most definitely not alone. There are a lot of men, dads, (and women and moms) in the world who are freaked out by physical intimacy. Sometimes people are uncomfortable with all physical intimacy. Sometimes people get creeped out by contact with kids particularly. After all, children don’t really get social cues about boundaries. Their need for contact can sometimes feel a bit too much. They can get up in your business in ways that would make even the most touchy-feely type parents feel like their space was being violated. I mean, one time my kid sniffed my butt. Like full on stuck his face up there. Thank God I was wearing jeans. But still: Not okay.
We’re not talking about butt-sniffing here, though. We’re talking about hugs, or as my wife likes to describe them “shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart.” And there are tremendous benefits to physical affection like hugs for both parents and kids. Those benefits come from a hormone called oxytocin. Produced in your hypothalamus, oxytocin has some interesting effects when it’s released into the brain. The hormone can relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and promote feelings of trust, stability, and relaxation. People who are in love or in the intense first months of a relationship are flooded with oxytocin. But so are parents and kids when they hug. The long and short of it is that oxytocin is linked inextricably to bonding.
So, by hugging your kids, you aren’t just giving them some kind of intellectual symbol of bonding. You are promoting a physiological response in both of you that promotes closeness and good feelings.
Beyond oxytocin, but likely related, hugs and positive touch have been shown to be crucial to childhood development. In a famous, but extremely sad experiment, orphaned baby monkeys were given two surrogate mother monkeys — on that was made of cold wire but provided food and one that had no food but was made of cuddly plush. The baby monkeys defaulted to the cuddly fake mother monkey, clinging to it even though it could not help them with their hunger. In studies of babies in overcrowded orphanages, a failure to thrive was linked with a lack of human contact and nurturing touch. But in infant intensive care units, babies who are able to be touched by parents are far more likely to survive.
This is all to say that nurturing touch is crucial to humans. But your trick will be to find a way to provide that in a way that does not trigger your discomfort and anxiety.
In all of the research about physical intimacy and parenting, there is a common denominator — touch. Just touch. Loving and gentle touch. In order for everyone to get the benefits, it’s not necessary for you to cuddle your kids, or even give them big chest to chest embraces. You could hold a hand. You could stroke their hair. You could place an arm on or around their shoulder. And it’s also unnecessary to linger. A brief squeeze is fine. So I will implore you to find a way to work this: it might be holding pinky fingers; it might be a kiss on the forehead, but whatever you do it needs to convey gentleness and love.
That’s only half of the problem though. The other half is having a conversation with your wife. I’m sure she’s not making you hug the kids out of malice. More likely, she’s concerned your kids might not understand your distance and wants to force a little closeness. But that closeness needs to come on your terms. And you need to let her know that while also letting her know you’re working on a way to show affection that suits you. Ask her to give you some time to find your affectionate thing. And once you’ve found it, let her know what it is so she stops stressing out about it.
Finally, you’re going to use your natural standoffishness for good. Some kids, like my aforementioned butt-sniffer, need to be taught to respect boundaries. Right now, your physical boundaries are not being respected. When you don’t want to be hugged or cuddled, you need to tell them in the nicest way possible. Let them know that you love them, but you don’t want to be touched. The follow it up with your affectionate action. If they come in again, tell them again, nicely. (All of this should be done with the best smile you can muster). On the flip side, their physical boundaries need to be respected too. If they don’t want a kiss on the forehead or pinky-holding, then you need to listen.
This is not an impossible situation. I fully trust that you’ll be able to find your affection. It will be good for you and will be good for your kids too.