A “love squeeze” is what my mom called a hand squeeze that means “I love you.” Love squeezes are especially useful during car rides, the middle of church, doctors’ offices, and any other nervous moments when you can’t give a hug or say the words “I love you.” My mom would often reach from the driver’s seat back towards our car seats, singing, “love squeeze!” We would affectionately squeeze her hand and feel loved.

My youngest daughter, Jane, is pathologically friendly. She wants to hug complete strangers. Upon meeting someone new, she immediately and adamantly refers to them as her “best friends.” She often tells me “all people love me!” When I reach from the driver’s seat to give Jane a love squeeze, she attempts to wrap her whole body around my hand and squeezes with all her might.

My older daughter, Christina, is more cautious. She warms up to people slowly. She trusts slowly. She says she doesn’t really like hugs.

When Christina first moved in with me, it felt natural to me to tell her that I loved her as I dropped her off at school in the morning, and as I tucked her into bed at night. When I called, “Have a good day! I love you!” from the car window, she would mutter “okay,” as she hurried to her class. When I tucked her into bed at night with an, “I love you! Sweet dreams!” she would merely tell me, “good night!”

When I reached my hand towards her while driving and said “love squeeze!” she would offer me her hand limp, barely touching my hand. Sometimes, she would rest the dead weight of her hand on top of mine, but she would not squeeze.

She behaved similarly when I tried to hug her. Although she hugged friends and acquaintances, she often shied away from me. When she was upset, I would reach to hug and comfort her. She usually pulled away. If she didn’t pull away, she would limply lean against me, her arms hanging at her sides. She told me, “hugs don’t make me feel better!”

As a physically affectionate person, this frustrated me. While I wanted Christina to have autonomy, and never wanted to force her to hug me, I wanted to bond with my daughter. This was how I bonded. I bonded through hugs, cuddles, and love squeezes. But Christina wanted to bond with me on her own terms.

One day, after a tearful argument, I offered Christina a hug in an attempt to show her that I cared about her unconditionally. She leaned one side slightly towards me, then coldly moved away. I felt helpless. We had just miscommunicated and argued. No one had won. We hadn’t seen each other’s point of view. She was in tears. We were emotionally distant from each other. And I couldn’t even give her a hug to show her that I still—and always—loved her.

In one of my worst parenting moments, I turned away from her and, without another word, slammed the door loudly and left the house, leaving Christina sobbing with my mother.

A storm of negative thoughts pounded in my mind as I drove away from the house: she’s never going to trust you. She’s never going to bond with you. It’s just going to get worse when she’s a teenager. She’s going to have lifelong attachment issues.

I went to the gym for about 20 minutes and ran furiously. Then I went to Dairy Queen. I bought Christina a large Oreo blizzard. And I drove home.

I apologized. Not slamming doors is one of our household communication rules. It’s posted on our refrigerator. I should know better. I told Christina I had broken our communication rules, and I was very sorry. And I said, “I’m not going to initiate hugs at all, until you want me to. If you want hugs or love squeezes or cuddles or kisses, you tell me, okay?”

After that, things got remarkably better. Christina started asking me for hugs. When I reached to give Jane love squeezes in the car, Christina gave me her hand, too, and squeezed my hand ever so slightly. And then a little bit more.

Several months later, I reached toward my girls’ car seats and sang, “love squeeze!” I was thinking about how far we had both come. I was feeling happily with our progress and proud of us as a family. I had learned to give Christina the space to learn to trust me and initiate on her own time. I had learned to let her be in control, to take her love languages into consideration, and to think creatively and intentionally about bonding with my daughter. She, in turn, was learning that physical affection could feel safe and good and make you feel better when you’re sad—a concept she previously said she didn’t understand. Now, Christina says “I love you” to me very often. She comes to me for hugs when she’s upset. She hugs me back when I hug her.

As I was blissfully reminiscing about how far we had come, I felt something that was not Christina’s hand. Instead of a love squeeze, she had shoved a slimy, used tissue into my palm.

But most days, she squeezes my hand hard. She says, “I love you,” every time she gets out of the car for school, and every night when I tuck her in bed. If we are in different rooms of our house, she stops playing frequently to seek me out, hug me, and tell me that she loves me. Sometimes, on car rides, she reaches toward the driver’s seat and sings, “love squeeze!”

Today, she gripped my hand until it became nearly unsafe to drive.

Recently, she overheard a counselor say something about attachment disorders, and she asked me what that was. I said, “honey, you don’t have to worry about that. You don’t have that.” She said, “I know. I don’t trust people, but I’m attached to you.”

And I thought about love squeezes. And I knew she was right.

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