While working with a student one afternoon, I heard a voice behind me exclaim, “Hey! Why’d you punch me?” This is what I refer to as a “tattle voice,” designed to alert the nearest adult that trouble is afoot (or a-punch, as the case may be). This time, knowing the tattler probably had punched first, I chose to pretend I hadn’t heard.
There’s something inside of middle schoolers that compels them to punch, poke, and smack (boys), or hug, link elbows, and walk with their arms around each other (girls). This is partly because their needs for physical affection haven’t diminished, but their means of meeting those needs have changed. When they’re 5, their parents will still pick them up, kiss them good-night, and hold their hands as they cross the street. When they’re 10, changes start to happen, some of them initiated by themselves.
When they’re 13, they may still crave parental hugs, but they’re not sure if that’s okay with their peers. At an age where affection from parents may or may not be welcomed, punching and hugging meet basic needs for affection in a socially acceptable manner. I’ve had students decide punching me might be a good way to connect, and I’ve had to suggest we switch to fist bumps instead.
Parents who aren’t allowed to hug (at least in public) can meet physical needs in subtle, more middle-school-approved ways, like a friendly shoulder bump when walking, or a high five. Side-arm hugs are tolerated more than full-on body hugs, and developing a “secret handshake” can be a fun way to connect. Just don’t do it if they’re afraid their friends will see it and laugh!
There will be those days when your middle schooler may seek you out for a big hug. Don’t ruin it by saying, “Oh, so you DO still need me.” Just open your arms and enjoy the moment.
And in between those times, keep practicing your secret handshake.