Learning the Hug Language of Your Adopted Teen

He held his arms wide and motioned for me to step inside. My husband knew I needed a hug.

I gladly accepted and moved into his embrace, exhaling. It had been a hard day, physically and emotionally, and it was only 6 pm. I needed a recharge.

Daughter #2 was quickly at our side.  “My turn.”

She has always been a snuggler. Always seeking out the hugs, the holding hands. Even in her teen years, when things get hard, she’ll climb onto my lap to get the best possible hug.

We relaxed our grip to let her in.

Five seconds later, Daughter #1 came up on the opposite side and joined our embrace.

That caught me by surprise.

This is the daughter who had just turned 4 when she finally came. This is the daughter who, on her first birthday came to live with an amazing foster mother. For the next 3 years this woman gave her everything I could wish for her, a safe and healthy home and unconditional love. But, this is also the daughter who lost her first year of emotional health and who’s still trying to recover from it.

In that first year, in those critical early months of her infancy, she languished in a crib, unattended. She was fed and clothed and changed. But she was not held or rocked or hugged. Or at best, not enough.

Coming to home to us a preschooler, we tried to make up for lost time. But she’d drop our hands as soon as we’d crossed the street. She’d slide off our laps to sit next to us. And when we picked her up to hug her, her body was like a rag doll in our embrace, limbs hanging limp. The instinctive arms around our necks, legs around our waist was lost on her. “Hug me back,” we’d say, and move her legs and arms into position.

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Now she’s a teenager and even her High 5s have become a High 1. We’ve negotiated that I won’t hug her in the drop off lane at school, or in public, and certainly not in front of her friends. I won’t put my arm around her shoulder during church. But I do get to hug her in the privacy of our home and I do it coming and going. Sometimes her response is perfunctory, a literal pat on the back. Other times, when I tell her that I’m the one needing the hug, I might get a quick squeeze. But on those rare occasions when she’s the initiator, she hugs me so tight my ribs crack. Part of this is the teenage awkwardness of physical contact with your parent. (Shivers!) But a deeper part of it is just her history. It’s who she is.

That’s why our family huddle was so special. The day hadn’t been hard for just me, it was hard for all of us. Life-with-teenagers-hard. We all needed the hug. And while Daughter #1 does not have physical touch as her love language, she does know where to go to get the comfort and reassurance that she needs. She goes toward our embrace. And she knows she’ll always find a place there.

Me and my cracked ribs are good with that.