Teenagers aren’t the only ones who suffer during their adolescence. It is normal to feel a sense of loss as your youngster begins growing up and away from you, looking ever more like an adult with each passing day. As you watch these changes you may also be lamenting, perhaps for the first time, the passage of your own youth, for few events in life force us to acknowledge our aging and ultimately our mortality more than watching our children become young men and women.
Parents may share these emotions with other mothers and fathers, but one issue that is rarely spoken about is the discomfort parents often feel about a child’s budding sexuality. “Sometimes parents distance themselves from their kids because of these changes,” says Dr. Renée Jenkins. “You see this more with fathers and their daughters, perhaps because a girl’s physical development is more noticeable. Their little girl is turning into a woman. To make the transition more comfortable, they try to desexualize the child. For example, a father may think it’s not appropriate to let his pubescent daughter sit on his lap anymore.” The young girl may feel rejected, especially if Dad pulls back emotionally as well. Or she may sense her father’s awkwardness, causing her to feel ashamed of her changing body.
Similarly, mothers may be uneasy enough about their sons’ sexual maturity that they withdraw emotionally or cease to display physical affection for fear of awakening sexual urges in either themselves or their boys. However, when mothers encounter difficulty adjusting to a child’s sexual maturity, usually it’s the daughter, not the son, who is the object of inappropriate feelings. In a not uncommon dynamic, a mother may view her daughter’s emerging sexuality as a threat to her own attractiveness and begin to “compete” by dressing like her daughter, insisting on not being called “Mom” and flirting with the daughter’s boyfriends.
Our society’s heightened awareness of sexual abuse involving children undoubtedly has contributed to the confusion some parents feel when it comes to being physically affectionate with their children. What is proper? What isn’t? Is it acceptable for parents to continue to kiss their teenagers on the lips, if that’s been the family custom over the years? Let a son or daughter sit on their lap? By all means. But if a youngster requests privacy or appears uncomfortable with the level of intimacy, parents should adjust their style accordingly. We must always respect an adolescent’s need for privacy and personal space.
Should fathers or mothers share the bathroom with their teens when they are bathing, using the toilet or changing clothes? It is up to each family to develop its own rules in this regard. What is considered proper in your household may not be okay for the family next door, and vice-versa. No guideline, however, can define the exact point at which parental physical affection assumes unhealthy sexual overtones. It is hoped a parent would recognize the difference and seek professional counseling, or the other parent would pick up on the signs and intervene.