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When is it OK to hug a teen boy? Not as often as you might think

Hug it Out. The majority of U.S. moms (58%) believe it's acceptable for a mom to show affection to her teenage son anytime, anywhere, but the boys have different ideas.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

When chubby toddler arms and legs stretch out into the long, lanky limbs of teenagers, moms often bemoan the loss of their formerly cuddly children. But the results of a recent survey are still a little jarring to any mom of a boy.

Although 58 percent of moms surveyed believed it is acceptable for a mom to show affection to her teenage son "anytime, anywhere," the teenage sons felt very differently. In fact, 59 percent of the teen boys felt that it's only acceptable for moms to show them affection at home, away from the public eye, according to Wakefield Research, who questioned 550 U.S. moms of sons ages 10-17 and 550 U.S. boys ages 10-17 for Old Spice's "Wild" Survey this past July.

But perhaps even more interesting was the statistic that 18 percent of the teen boys surveyed believed that it's never acceptable for moms to show their teen sons affection.

Dr. Sarah Cain Spannagel, pictured here with her husband Dave and her own future teen sons Matt, 8, and Ben, 5, said mothers can show affection and love in ways that are not physical if that is what their sons prefer.Courtesy of Dr. Sarah Cain Spannagel

Mom Julie Russell told TODAY Parents that her own 16-year-old son would like her to "just disappear" any time they are in public. "Typically, PDA is a big NO," she said. "He does give in — sometimes grudgingly — and gives me hugs at home when I ask for them."

But every so often, she said, he surprises her. "Very fleeting, like a wild animal in the savannah, he will surprise me and give me a hug without being prompted," she said.

Her son's attitude toward affection, Russell said, changed when he turned into a "tween creature." Before that, "He was a very hug-loving youngster, almost craving it," she said. "I miss my little guy!"

The good news is that 23 percent of the teen boys surveyed did believe that affection from their moms was acceptable "anytime, anywhere," and many moms said that is still the case in their household.

"My 19-year-old boy is a hugger," South Brunswick, New Jersey, mom Nancy Asher-Shultz told TODAY Parents. "He will wrap me in one of his bear hugs whenever the mood strikes and has never stiffened or moved away if I hug him in public. Makes me one happy mama!"

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So how does a mom survive if her teen son doesn't want her snuggles? There's more than one way to show affection, Dr. Sarah Cain Spannagel, a Cleveland-area psychologist and faculty member of Case Western Reserve University's psychology department in pediatrics.

"Moms show their boys, both big and small, that they love them in a variety of ways," said Dr. Cain Spannagel. "They pack lunches, wash clothes, sit on the sidelines and cheer. These acts of love continue well into the teen years with most boys, even if their sons act blissfully unaware of the efforts."

As a mom of two boys herself, Dr. Cain Spannagel said she knows that moms want to hold their sons tight with hugs and affection to demonstrate their love as well. "Sometimes these hugs, for a mom, are even more meaningful than the other ‘acts of service,'" she said.

But moms convey to their children that they are loved in the other ways too, she said, and "As a whole, they take in these nurturing messages and it shapes our relationships with them and their relationships with others."

Dr. Cain Spannagel noted that other research on teenagers shows that boys need lots of touch and affection, and that receiving that affection leads to better emotion regulation over the years. "This new data appear to suggest, however, that teen boys seem to deem appropriate time and place, and it might be different than their moms," she said.

As with all things parenting, moms and sons will figure it out, she added. "Take their lead!" she advised. "If a son hugs his mom in public, then that mom should feel comfortable returning that hug and even initiating a sign of affection if she gauges her son is comfortable with it."

But if you get feedback that your son is uncomfortable showing affection in public, Dr. Cain Spannagel recommended moms respect that feeling and find another time to show affection. She even suggested coming up with a private signal to share between mother and son to replace public (or not) displays of affection, such as a wink, a smile, or a high-five. "That secret shared sign might be the perfect compromise for some families," she said.