“How to Hug a Teenager,” by CK Steefel

Mar 6th, 2024 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

When my twins were toddlers, they fought over me, literally. One time, my son, Dylan, was sitting on my lap and my daughter, Samantha, who was happily playing with a toy on the floor, hoisted herself up and pushed Dylan off my lap as though she was rescuing me from Bigfoot. She then triumphantly climbed on my lap; her toy long forgotten. After soothing a crying Dylan, I took advantage of the teaching moment and explained the concept of sharing.

“Looky,” I said, “You can each have one of my knees all to yourself.”

They were thrilled. If they could have formed a full sentence it might have been, “A whole knee just for me.”

When I figured out how to strap one Baby Bjorn on the front and one on the back, stuffing two little humans inside each, they were under the magic illusion that they had mommy all to themselves.

When daddy came home from work, they climbed up to his shoulders like he was a human jungle gym. And with more real estate on hubby, the kids didn’t bump into each other during the ascension.


In elementary school Dylan and Samantha loved to cuddle, especially during story time before bed. One book was plenty for me. I would cover my yawning mouth, ready to have a glass of wine with the hubster, or slouch into a zombie state on the sofa and watch a mindless TV show like “Deal or No Deal.” “Cash Cab” was too thinky. We once tried. It went like this:

Cab Driver—What sport is Babe Ruth associated with?

Me—Uh… It starts with a B.

The kids knew when the last sentence of the book was approaching and that it signified time for sleep. They’d squirm when we reached that final page, maybe kick the bed in angst then realize that wasn’t the way to get mom or dad to stay.

All kids are born with an innate talent. It’s called Cuteness Overload and mine were masters.

“Stay for one more minute, pleeaaassse.”

“Okay. One more minute.”

“And another book.”

“And another book.”

(I didn’t have to tell you who said what in the above dialogue, did I?)

But once again, the last line of the book would encroach and once again no heavy lid would surrender. “Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.” Instead of having the Xanax effect I hoped for, it was a siren for my kids. They’d bolt out of bed ready to party. (Maybe I should have recited those words every morning when I woke them up at 6:30am for school. They would have surely jumped out of bed.)

Dylan would eagerly leap to his shelf and before I could say, “Get back to bed,” he’d have a stack of books for me to read as though I was Bruce Springsteen, and these picture books were the encore to my concert. I was ready to take a bow—bow out of the room and nose-dive into a fluffy cushion.

Samantha who was more musical and sometimes skipped the curtain-call book would have a song ready on her iPod. (Remember those?) She knew how to tempt me by playing classic rock, finding a tune I grew up with.

“But wait. What’s Billy Joel singing about?” She’d ask. She knew my favorite song was Piano Man and lured me back to her warm blanket, offering me the other earpiece.

“Listen closely,” I said. “He’s telling the story about when he sang at a piano bar on Long Island before he was famous.”

“Wait, I’m pausing it.” She pondered the lyrics. “Who is he talking to? ‘Bill this is killing me.’”

“The bar tender is telling Billy Joel, ‘Bill’, that he’s working too hard,” I said.

I’ll never forget the look on Samantha’s face when the story clicked. I knew she was imagining a wiry bar tender who needed a shower and the talented, yet undiscovered, Billy Joel, who was just a guy named ‘Bill’ in a piano bar and who all the patrons confided in.

I relish these memories.

Cut to High School.

Teenagers become unrecognizable. In just a few years my kids went from cuddly, funny, confident little humans to something that resembles a typical alien description by an alleged abductee—tall, narrow, eyes in a 10 to 2 position permanently in a squint. But a mother’s love doesn’t change.

When my astute daughter was 12 and had friends with teenage siblings and witnessed the brutality towards their parents, she said to me, “Ma, I’m apologizing in advance for being a teenager.” I was charmed and chuckled. I wasn’t prepared for what was to come. Apology unaccepted.

It wasn’t just the moans and groans and eye rolls. There was one particular event I will never forget.

It was a Saturday evening, like any other. Before Dylan and Samantha were to meet up with friends, we had the usual exchange:

“Don’t forget to text me when you arrive and when you’re on your way home,” I said.

“Yeah, ma,” they said in unison.

I gave them a hug and they both groaned.

“What?” I said.

“That’s not how to hug,” said Samantha.

“What?” I said truly not understanding.

“You’re lingering,” said Dylan.

“Yeah, you linger.”

“I shouldn’t linger?”

“No,” they said in unison.

“So, how should I hug you?” I said.

“Like this,” said Samantha who then proceeded to hug her brother for a nano second.

For a moment I thought they were joking. I always wrote comedy and when I was an actor I performed in comedies; this lesson had to be a trick.

“Are you kidding?” I said.

They looked at me with those sleep deprived, alien eyes.

“This is how to hug. You step in, ahn, step back,” said Samantha in all seriousness. I assumed the “ahn” was in the teenage grunt-language translated to “embrace.”

I practiced on them, determined to get it right. After all, I wanted to be the cool mom, the one who hosted their parties—mostly because I didn’t trust the other parents—but still—it made the Steefels the reliable crash house. Some mornings hubby and I had to step over alien bodies to get to our kitchen. One early afternoon hubby sat on an alien teen sleeping on our couch. Her skinny body was hidden by a blanket and hubby plopped down. They both had a scare when the alien bolted up right and shocked hubby.

“I take one step forward, ‘ahn’, then step back.” I demonstrated on Samantha while Dylan observed.

“No, too long,” said Dylan.

“Am I loitering?”

“Yeah, good word, loiter,” said Dylan, my sixteen-year-old wordsmith.

I threw my hands up as though I was under arrest, then suggested, “Should I count during the embrace? One- one thousand- two- one thousand?”

“One is plenty,” said Samantha.

“Maybe even Wuh,” said Dylan.

“Or ‘ahn,’” said Samantha.

“So, the word, ‘one’ is too long?”

They shrugged—a teen’s way of nodding.

“Okay. I step in, wuh, step back. Success?”

“No, your hair got in my mouth,” said Samantha writhing.

“I’ll tie back my hair before I hug you.”

“Maybe you should just skip the hug and say, ‘Bye,’” offered Dylan.

Samantha shook her head at him knowing me too well. I’m a hugger. I can’t say Goodbye, let alone Goodnight, without my arms around them even for a “wuh” or an “ahn.”

I was getting annoyed, yet I didn’t want to harm my relationship with my kids. I wanted to respect their wishes and didn’t want a hug to be a hindrance or a wedge between us. They were learning how to be independent, to be adults, yet they weren’t mature enough for any big decisions. Their prefrontal cortex would not be fully developed until they turned 27 years old. I once tried to explain this to them. This was their response:

“The science is flawed.”

“The neurologist who discovered this never had parents.”

Teenagers are not quite adults, yet they must live within the confining rules of their parents. I knew that once they were 18 and away at college, and then life, I could no longer have any influence on them whatsoever. So, I didn’t mind creating an illusion that they were adults. I didn’t mind giving them as much power and independence as possible—within reason. The teenage years were not just steppingstones but parkour courses across building roof tops.

“We gotta go,” said Dylan.

I suddenly remembered the last line of, “Goodnight Moon.” Our roles had switched. I didn’t want them to go. They were growing up too fast. I blurted out what I was thinking.

“Let’s read another book together.”

They looked at each other, quizzically, at this random suggestion.

“Okay, Mrs. Non sequitur,” said Dylan.

Dylan and Samantha grabbed their coats.

“Let me practice one last time,” I said. “Step in, ‘ahn’, step back.”

“Perfect,” Dylan and Samantha said in unison.

I doubted their sincerity and thought maybe they were placating me just so they could get the heck out of the house.

Samantha leaned in and whispered, “It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday.”

I looked at the time. It was only seven. Before I could respond my sweet aliens were out the door. And then I realized what Samantha was referring to. Billy Joel. It was the first line of my favorite song. This was Samantha’s way of letting me know she was still my little human.

Post College.

My kids’ hugging lesson stayed with me throughout their college years. I was careful to be quick, to barely wrap an arm around them when they came home on holidays. It wasn’t until they were working in the world that I discovered they forgot all about this lesson.

“Ma, what kind of hug is that?” said Samantha.

“It’s a hug.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“What? No. I’m just remembering the hug lesson you guys gave me when you were teenagers.”

“No way,” said Dylan.

“We never did that,” said Samantha.

“Yes, you did.”

They laughed uproariously.

“I’m sorry.”

They both gave me a solid hug. I counted, one-one thousand, two- one thousand, three- one thousand…


CK Steefel is an actor and writer. She wrote and performed an award winning one woman show, guest starred on sit-coms and is known to extreme Seinfeld fans as Silvia on the episode, “The Cigar Store Indian.” CK has optioned and sold screenplays, co-wrote a humor gift book with Pam Lobley, You Definitely Know You’re A Mom When… and was published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. She currently writes a humor blog, interviews Funny AF Women at csteefel.Substack.com, and is serializing her WIP novel. She’s a happily married empty nester and is still waiting for her adult twins to text her back.

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