Overcoming an Inability to Show Affection to One’s Children

Q: Your recent column, in which a father wrote in asking for advice on how to be warmer towards his adult children, really hit home for me. My problem is not identical to his but close enough that I thought maybe you could help me, too.

I have four children, a girl and three boys, ages 6, 4, 2 and 5 months. My husband is always hugging and kissing all of our children. I find that I am not really able to do the same. I have no problem being affectionate to my children when they are infants. But when they get older, around two years old, then I find it more difficult. I know this is connected to my childhood because my mother was never physically affectionate to me or any of my siblings. But I would like to learn how to overcome this because I do understand that children need displays of warmth from both parents. Of course, I tell my children that I love them and I praise them as often as I can. But I would like to be able to hug and kiss them like my husband does.

The advice you gave that father was for dealing with older children. What advice could you offer me?

A: Before advising you on what steps you can take, I must congratulate you on the strides you have already made. Acknowledging your emotional limitations is a courageous achievement. Many people with similar inhibitions go through their entire lives defensively denying the obvious, which automatically closes the door on any growth or remediation. Furthermore, seeing the connection between your current circumstances and the deficits of your upbringing is a valuable, albeit painful, insight. Finally, your eagerness to overcome your shortcoming and your willingness to reach out for help are most admirable.

To move forward, I recommend that you adopt the twofold strategy of Dovid Hamelech: “Turn away from the bad and implement the good” (Tehillim 34:15). More specifically, you need to distance yourself from the negative script imbedded into your mindset by your childhood experiences. This is much easier said than done and requires further elaboration.

All children see themselves through the eyes of their parents. In other words, the way we are treated by our parents has a powerful impact on how we think of ourselves. If we are loved, respected and valued by our parents, we develop confidence and a positive self-image. If we are ridiculed, embarrassed or demeaned, we become insecure adults who feel like failures. And when children do not receive any verbal or physical affection, they grow up with a nagging sense of inadequacy and an exaggerated expectation of rejection.

I recall one young woman, for example, in her mid-30s, whose mother suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. As a result of this condition, the mother scapegoated her daughter, which included withholding any and all emotional warmth. What made this even more difficult was the fact that the mother did display affection, excessively at times, to her other children. This woman, therefore, found herself incapable of hugging and kissing her own children. In therapy, she came to the realization that the rejection she experienced from her own mother was what she was unconsciously anticipating from her children. If they would not reciprocate 100 percent to her advances, she felt completely rebuffed by them. Eventually, she learned to lower her expectations for her children’s responses which enabled her to be more affectionate to them.

In short, you need to separate your children from your mother. Just because she was unaffectionate and rejecting does not mean that they are or will be. And you may need to remind yourself of this fact each time you try to display warmth to them. If you find this difficult to manage on your own, working with a therapist may make this process easier for you.

All of the above could be considered “turning away from” the negative, as you attempt to divorce yourself from the negative associations from your past. “Implementing” the positive involves taking more active steps.

For example, make a deliberate attempt to copy your husband’s behavior when he is affectionate to your children. In addition, take note of when other people display affection to their children. If you cannot see yourself doing the same, try to go as far as you can. Do not expect to do everything all at once. Remember, every little bit adds up. Share your efforts with your husband and allow him to encourage you. Make this a team effort, with your husband serving as the cheerleader. Finally, keep in mind that the ultimate reward you will receive for your struggle is that your children will never have to write me the same letter that you just did.


 

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.