About Affection: Part Three Behavioral Therapy

Sometimes my mom, who turned eighty last year, will read my blog and she'll ask, a little shy, "I wonder if your father and I were bad parents?"

Are you kidding, Mom? You were great. The two of you teamed up very well together, still do, and I tell the following story in therapy, when people really need to change and don’t have the courage to do it, of how you two changed the way we operated one cold day in February, 1970.

I tell the story because there are families that lack affection or lose it somehow, and have no idea how to get it back.

Take this very typical example. I’ve seen dozens of variations of cases like this.

About a year ago, a lovely Hispanic woman, we’ll call her Mrs. X., brought her 15 year old daughter in to see me for therapy. The kid had taken the family car in the early hours of the morning to hang out with her boyfriend.

Her older brother happened to have been up around 3:30 a.m. He was looking out the window and saw his sister slam the car door upon returning home. This upset him on many levels, especially since he knew she had a boyfriend. He woke their father, told on his sister right then and there.

Mr. X. got up and beat the living blank out of her. He had never done that before. By the time the young girl saw me for her first visit there were no physical scars. But she was very upset and swore she would never speak to Mr. X again. Her mother wanted to know what they should do with the girl since she seemed so angry and out of control. Mom was also worried about the potential for more violence in the home.

There were many things happening in this family, but the thing that was driving the kid's need to drive the family car was feeling unloved. The boys in the family were valued, but she felt that she was not. She received no physical affection from her father.

I said, “Bring in Dad. We go no farther until I talk to Dad.”

Mr X, a very handsome, well-groomed middle-aged man, came in with his daughter and sat opposite to her. He said that he was very disappointed, had no idea that she would ever be the type of girl to do that, steal a car, go out in the middle of the night, ride with boys.

He was defensive. He had raised her properly. He didn’t understand. He worked so hard. He gave her everything she needed.

Do you ever talk to her?

Sure, sure, sometime.

No, really talk to her. Do you know who her friends are?

Sure, I know some of her friends.


Some, not all. She is in high school. There are many kids there.

At the end of the work day what do you do?

I come home late sometimes. I go to bed.

She tells me that you like her brother more than you like her.

Oh, that’s not true. That’s ridiculous. I love my daughter. I love her so much. (He steals a sad glance at her.)

And you tell her this, that you love her so much?

I have. Sometime.


Not much. But she knows.

I turn to the kid. You know, I ask, that he loves you so much?

I don’t know. I for sure don’t know. And now that he’s beating me up, why would I think he loves me. He loves my brothers. Ever since my little brother was born I have taken a back seat to him. Before that he was nicer.

How old were you before that ?


Do you come to him to talk to him? I asked.

I’m scared of him. He only gives orders. Do this, do that. He doesn’t ask me about me. He lied. He never asks me about my friends, or about what I like, don’t like. He couldn’t tell you what classes I’m taking in school. He doesn’t know the color of my eyes.

Brown! he shouts.

Yes, they’re brown, she agrees. But you know you don’t know what classes I’m taking in school.

The name of her boyfriend? I asked him hopefully. Do you know the name of her boyfriend?

No. I don’t know the name of her boyfriend. She can’t have boyfriends. She’s only a little girl.

Sure, sure. But what if she liked a boy. Girls do look at boys, boys look at girls. Let’s say she had her eye on a boy, and that he liked her, too. Wouldn’t you want to know that? Wouldn’t you want to know his name?

She can’t be with boys. We don’t let her be with boys.

But let’s say she liked him enough that she wanted to be with him, anyway. Even knowing you disapproved, and didn’t tell you about him. It is hard to know where teenagers are every minute of the day, isn’t it? Wouldn’t that be a problem for you?

Yes, yes.

So wouldn’t you be feel safer asking her, on occasion, if she liked any particular boy, and if so, what did she like about him? Wouldn’t you think it’s safer to tell her what boys are really all about, what boys want to do to girls, and how she should be very careful when she falls in love? I’m sorry, but I think fathers are supposed to warn their daughters that boys can break their hearts. Men understand men. Women only think they do.

He is quiet. He looks at her. The doctor is right. Boys are after one thing.

End of lecture.

Keep going, I say.

He goes on awhile about boys being boys.

Maybe it is time to start talking at home, I suggest. (I turn to the kid) If your father came into your room in the evening to talk, would you talk to him?

Mr. X interrupts. Oh, I don’t go in her room.



Why not?

It’s not respectful. A man does not go into a woman’s room. She is a woman.

But I thought you said she was a little girl?

He laughs. She is too young to take the car and drive around with boys. She is only 14

Fifteen, corrects his daughter.

Why would she want to do that, drive around with boys, I ask.

I don’t know. He sighs.

Ask her.

Why you do that? Mr. X asks.

I don’t know, she sighs.

Sure you do, I say.

I want to be with my boyfriend.

Ask her why.

Why Mr X asks his daugher.

I like him.

Ask her if they kiss.

He asks.

(His daughter, shy) Well, sometimes.

Me to her father: Do you ever kiss your daughter?


Have you ever?

Sure. Especially when she was small.

Do you ever touch her, say, arm or shoulder affectionately?


No you don’t she barks.

Of course I do.

You never hug me. Never touch me.

I can’t he says.

Sure you can, I say. You love her.

Of course I love her.

So why not show it?

I don’t know.

You hug my brother, kid blurts. You kiss my little brother.

He squirms uncomfortably in his chair.

True? I ask.


I kick the kid out of the office, ask her to wait for us in the waiting room nearby. I want to talk with her father alone. She leaves and I launch into one of my canned lectures with him.

Listen, Mr. X. I'm going to let you in on a little secret. You, as this kid’s father, ideally should be the only one who gives her physical attention and love at this age. You are IT. You’re HER DAD. You’re the man. She doesn’t need this boyfriend. Warm up to her.

I don’t know. I don’t think I can.

Put your arm around her while you're watching T.V. once in awhile. Smile at her when you see her. Ask her to tell you about her day. Stroke her chin. I know guys like you don't want to be accused of anything bad. You’re aware that there are men who touch their daughters inappropriately. But you’re not that kind of person.

I was told never to touch my daughter. I would never hurt my daughter. I want her to be happy.

Sure, which is why you were so upset when she went out with her boyfriend.

You know, of course, that you can never hit her again. She will call the police again next time. Or me. And I won’t help you. It's amazing they let you off this time.

I know. I won’t hit her again. But she can’t do this. She can't be taking the car in the middle of the night to be with a boy.

You need to start to talk to her, and you need to show her that you love her. You can't act like you love her brothers, but not her.

I don’t know. I can try. But I don't know. He looks at me helplessly, blank, lost.

That’s when I told him the story I’m going to tell you now. It’s a hard one for me to share.

But this time of year, when the weather gets cold, and my thoughts turn to winter (I hate winter) I think of this story and how it changed my family forever.

I’ll give you the introduction I don't give my patients. I didn’t tell this to Mr. X. He’s a patient, he doesn’t need to know all this detail. Maybe you don't either.

However, if you remember from the first post on affection, mine was not a gooey family. We were relatively disengaged. My parents allowed us our own personal space as kids, and although we didn’t communicate all that much with one another, we were allowed to do our own thing, to develop independence. This has served me well all my life.

But we were a little light on physical affection. Mom says I rejected her at age 13 when she took my hand while we were crossing the street and I shrugged her off. (Not all that weird, right?). The fact is, that soon thereafter, at fourteen, I experienced a real hormonal emotional drop and got pretty depressed. For sure I deliberately distanced from the family.

And my Dad was never physically demonstrative or affectionate to me. He was more like Mr. X. Maybe he worried that affection towards a girl might be inappropriate. He didn’t have sisters, and he had his own childhood issues with my grandfather. Affection can be transgenerational. If he didn’t get it, it might have been harder to give it, right?

Yet when I look at baby pictures, there he is, holding me, clearly happy, laughing, and AFFECTIONATE.

And he was so nice to my friends and everyone else. My guess is that he got uncomfortable when I started to show the first signs of being a girl.

What did a guy with no sisters know from girls? Anyway, I was a happy kid regardless, if not a little on the anxious side, until adolescence. High school was a tough time for my Little Bro, too, who barely remembers those years.

But Big Bro who was used to having actual physical health issues, was the one to come into his own as a teenager. He got tall and handsome, and let his beautiful Indian jet black hair grow out (this was the sixties). By seventeen he’d scored exceedingly well on the all those important achievement tests and got into the top medical schools. He was a happy older teenager and a year later, when I matured a bit we became closer, the two of us. We saw the potential for a warm, fuzzy, future family relationship.

Then in a flash, he disappeared in late January, 1970. It was one of those horrible family tragedies in which a child, a just turned twenty year-old child, can simply disappear.

I can tell you how it affected me as an adult. I don’t watch Without a Trace. I avoid all kinds of things about missing kids on television, and that milk carton campaign blew me away a few years ago. On very rare occasions, when patients tell me a story about missing persons I focus like crazy on them for that 45 minutes, get through the day, then zone out for who knows how long.

Anyway, when I talk to patients about affection, I don’t tell them all that I’ve just told you. My hands tremble at the keyboard even now, just thinking about sharing it.

But I do tell them the rest of the story, which of course, you deserve.

We left off with, Mr. X feeling incapable of showing his daughter the affection I thought she needed from him, and me saying,

Mr X., let me tell you a story:

When I was a kid my father was a lot like you. He was very careful about affection, and he never came into my room or sat on my bed, that sort of thing. I think that it is all about respect, honestly, and that you, too, are the kind of father who respects your daughter.

Am I right?


I know. I know you. You are a good man.

Well, here’s what happened in my family. One day we had a tragedy. My brother was 20 years old and he lived downtown in a dormitory for school. He disappeared. It was winter and we later learned, a month later, that he had drowned in Lake Michigan. It was a terrible thing, a terrible blow to everyone. I lost a brother. My parents lost a son. You don’t get over that.

(I let the pause get really pregnant here, then continue)

And as parents, I think mine said to themselves: We only have two children left. We have to make every day count. Every day has to matter with our two children.

So they called a family meeting, my parents, my younger brother, and me. We sat down at the kitchen table about a week or two after we had buried my big brother, and we talked about how we were going to make changes in the family.

I think my father might have said, and I’m not exactly sure he said this, but he might have said, “I don’t know if your brother knew how much I loved him.”

Maybe I said, “I’m sure he knew you loved him.”

And he said, “We have to be sure we all know that we love each other. How do we do that?”

I believe it was me who suggested that I kiss him, my father, when he came home from work from then on. I would do that.

The suggestion passed. He thought it was good. Everyone thought it was a good idea. Maybe it wasn’t even my idea. I don’t know. But the meeting ended.

And I did that.

My father would ring the doorbell. I’d run to answer it (I was 18). And I’d kiss him hello. And he’d kiss me back. It was wonderful.

It was very stiff at first, and weird. But it was wonderful and heartfelt and after awhile, felt very natural. And we are affectionate and loving with each other to this day. He is 86 and I love him very much. It is the same with my mother, who is going on 81.

You can do this, too, I told Mr. X, and have told so many other fathers. You can do this too. You can start this affection thing going with your daughters, and you should.

If not now, when?

What are you waiting for?

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc


I'm so proud of you for sharing that! What a wonderful message. A wise woman once counseled me to teach kids to be good because they want to - not because they feel they have to. Because one day those kids will grow up and realize no one can make them be or do anything...and what will they have learned if all they got growing up was force - be it physical or otherwise? Love is the only tool powerful enough to succeed. Thanks again for the share.

Holly's Corner
Familydoc said…
Physical affection in a sexual context (mutually-attracted non-taboo individuals) stimulates adrenaline levels and, to some degree, the adrenocorticoid hormones, which is exciting.

But physical affection in a non-sexual context (e.g.--parent/child) stimulates endorphin levels which give a calming and lasting substrate to the central nervous system, especially those areas of the brain that affect appetite, reasoning, and learning.

I wonder how many of our ADD/HD -labeled children are simply lacking the necessary neuroendocrine balance provided by an affectionate family?

Thanks for an important post, and for sharing both the clinical vignette and a lot of yourself.
bjurstrom said…
Dear Doc, thank-you for today's blog----oops---I've just become amazingly inarticulate----your parents are GREAT and you have taken your family lessons to help the world. Thank-you is too trite----I need a better phrase---You are generous with your knowledge---maybe there is a better word in Yiddish for gratitude.....maybe that word covers more than thank-you. Deb.....P.S. I think I might finally get this blogging right.
therapydoc said…
Wow, and here I was about to take it down. Okay, you're welcome.

Oh, and I love that idea about kids with ADHD, but you'll be put in serious cherem (purgatory?) if you ever express it to a parent who has tried SO hard and been more than patient and has gotten NOWHERE with affection.

But if experience changes physiology, and we think it does, it makes a case for affection in any case.
Anonymous said…
Lin, I loved your blog today. I didn't remember all the details of that horrible February. But our meeting was in the dining room! Love ya, mom
jeanie said…
Thank you.

I may just send this link to a few people I love.
therapydoc said…
Kind of scary, isn't it, how such a simple concept can be so hard?
Anonymous said…
Excellent post. This is a heart touching story that every parent should read. Love is a verb, meaning that we need to take action, the kiss you exchanged with your Father each time he came home was a wonderful action that helped to express your mutual love.
You have touched the world again today and made a positive impact on more than you will ever know!
YZF said…
I knew where this was going from the start, but it was still very touching. Wonderful job, mom.
Anonymous said…
Oh, so now I discover your therapy blog online. Only after thousands of dollars spent on therapy. Jeez.
Margo said…
Oh, Mom. You actually got me teared up, and then Surkie's comment did me in. Thanks for being wonderful.
I hate winter, too...that's why I left Chicago. ;) I never got any positive affection from my parents, so I make sure that it is a top priority with my own kid. Thanks for this informative post...and thanks for the link!
Anonymous said…
Wonderful wonderful wonderful piece- wonderful fantastic piece. I will definitely be back at this blog- you write brilliantly and this is such common sense and unusual common sense. Brilliant.
Anonymous said…
Thank you TD for this post. I always thought it was just my dad who withdrew when things changed. And I always thought it was because I got hurt when I was 12...that maybe even he thought it would have been better if I was a brave, dead kid instead of a live, broken one. He is 86 now -- and frail. And maybe it is not too late for me to find a way to make it right. Thanks again.
Ella said…
My brother died before I was born. I wish my parents had made that love pledge for me and my brother & sister who lived.
I did learn from it - my husband and I exchange "I love yous" every day, and I tell my kids and demonstrate it to my kids. I remind them even after yelling or time out that I always love them. I hope it works.
therapydoc said…
Oh, I think it does.
Ella said…
thanks - Sounds like it worked in your family, to make sure everyone knew without a doubt. That's what I'm going for!
At least I know that if I die (and I had a heart attack in January), there will be proof of my existence, a funeral and a grave and no one can burn all the pictures of me (thank you Facebook!).

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