The other day, a fellow foster mom was feeling blue because her foster son doesn’t give her hugs. What can she do? That mama needed affection… and so did the boy. But trauma was standing in the way.
First, that mama can throw away the traditional definition of an affectionate hug. There are lots of ways to have a comforting touch between an adult and child.
Affectionate Touch – Non-Hug
- Tag – You know how to play tag, but do you know why it’s so great for traumatized kids? They can touch and run away, which matches their simultaneous wish to be close and keep their distance. The running also burns off excess stress. It’s a good beginner form of affection between foster parents and new kiddos.
- “Touch and go” – A brief, light touch on a child’s hand or foot is an excellent way to get a child used to a foster parent’s touch. It’s practically over before it starts, and kids are usually ok with their hands and feet being touched.
- Wrestling – Boys seem naturally wired for wrestling, and it can be good way of “mock fighting” against authority. The adult carefully monitors so that it stays pretend and doesn’t get into an actual fight. Lots of good contact.
- Sardines – This variation on hide-and-go-seek can be played by all ages, and since the hiders all squeeze in together, there’s lots of contact and giggling. Focus can be directed on whether or not the seeker will find the hiders, rather than on the fact that physical contact is happening.
- Swimming – Playing in the water together can provide great skin-on-skin contact, especially wonderful for little ones. Since the water is providing sensory input on the child’s skin, children seem less sensitive to adult touch.
- Hair brushing – The rhythm of brushing hair can be soothing.
Hand or foot massage – Putting some lotion on a child’s hand or foot and rubbing it in can be soothing.
- Tickling – Tickling brings out lots of laughter, and if you allow the child to tickle you back, it’s a great, two-way physical touch.
Different Kinds of Actual Hugs
- Hug monster – The foster mom announces that she’s about to turn into a Hug Monster, so the kids better run. The kids run away and foster mom chases. If the kids get too scared, foster mom backs off. (I’ve pretended that the kids have slayed the terrible beast and fallen to the floor, or pretended that I am too old and out of breathe. Ok, maybe that wasn’t pretend.) If the foster mom catches the kids, she gives them hugs for a few seconds and then lets the kids run away.
- Partial hug – A foster dad can hug just an arm or leg. A full on hug can make a child feel like they are being trapped, so hugging just a small part gives a greater sense of physical freedom.
- Sneak hug – A foster mom bets the children that they can’t sneak up on her and give her a surprise hug. Foster mom sometimes catches the kids as they sneak up, so they can’t give her a hug. Sometimes she “loses” and lets the kids give her a hug. Kids love this one as it’s a great way to “get one over on the foster mom.’ In time, the foster mom might be able turn the tables and “sneak hug” the children. The first attempts at this should be very obvious, so the children are not literally startled by an adult jumping out.
- Knock me over hug – The kids attempt to knock over the foster dad onto the sofa with the strength of their hugs.
You can talk with your foster kiddos about their hug preferences. Older kids, especially teens, may feel better if they can help set the parameters of how hugs are given out.
- Hug location – Your foster kid may want hugs, but only in certain “safe” locations. For example, only in public areas like the kitchen or only outdoors. Bedrooms and bathrooms are often places where abuse take place, so your child may be particularly sensitive to a good night hug in those rooms.
- Scheduled hug – Your foster child may do better if a hug is made part of routine. It can be a hug before going out the door to school or a hug in the living room before the child starts getting ready for bed. Simply taking out the “scariness” of not knowing when that foster parent is going to hug you can help a child relax.
- Hugger vs huggee – A hug doesn’t have to be mutual. One person can just stand there while the other one hugs them.
Over time, your foster children may overcome their anxiety and graduate to traditional hugs. But if they never do, you still can have a fabulous, affectionate relationship.