Hi, a 12 yo old boy in my family which I’m quite fond of is showing more than normal affection towards me. More than normal because I’m not his father, but somehow I think he sees me as such. His parents divorced when he was 4 or 5 and his father was very violent towards the boy. As an outsider I was/am unable to intervene, but I saw what I saw. As a consequence (I think) he is currently still suckling his thumb and is constantly seeking physical affection. Hugs, touches, fingers in the hair of people, etc. He tries to do it with many people, mainly men, but they seem to be not too happy with it. Me on the other hand I know his history and I let him do. I know he needs kindness and tenderness. As a result he is overly fond of me. Lately over a 2 week period him amd his family where on holiday in my region. We saw each other every day. He didn´t leave my side and followed me everywhere, even though his family was right there with him and are very kind. At the end of the 2weeks he was reluctant to go home and was crying, even angry. I told him he can talk to me and ask me anything anytime when s-thing is bothering him. I love him as my own son and I treat him the same as my own son. He says he would like me to be his father, although his mother since some years now has a new, kind and loving partner (with a boy & daughter of his own).
I would like to know more so I can help guiding him in the right direction growing up towards adulthood, at least during the times I see him. Does this happen frequently? Is this normal boyhood behavior? Or is it odd, as I think exceptional (due or not to his early childhood)? And should I be mindful of some things? I’m afraid that one day he may encounter some person that has no kind intentions and will take advantage of him in a devastating way if maybe someone not already did. Many thanks in advance and kind regards. (age 36, from Belgium)Concerned for the Mental and Physical Wellbeing of a Twelve Year Old
Concerned for the Mental and Physical Wellbeing of a Twelve Year Old
Thank you for sharing your concerns about this young man. Experiencing trauma in early childhood can dramatically affect one’s ability to form healthy attachment to others, especially if the abuse comes at the hands of someone who is supposed to love and protect you. Sometimes the person may have difficulty showing affection and developing a bond with someone else and sometimes it’s just the opposite and they attach too easily and demonstrate poor boundaries. This could very well be the case for this young man. At the extremes it can lead to a diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder or Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder.
The fact that you have been a stable and supportive male role model in this boy’s life is wonderful and it will increase his chances of knowing that he is worthy and lovable. Acting like a father figure for him is a positive thing as well. It may take him time to connect and bond with his new stepfather — and it may help even more if you encourage their relationship. But, I also agree that his overly affectionate behavior toward adult men could be misinterpreted by some and could put him at risk. I encourage you to speak to his mother about getting him into therapy now that he is older. It would be an ideal place for him to work through his abuse and learn appropriate boundaries.
Finally, since he exhibits a strong connection with you, you have the ability positively influence him. You can speak to him about good touch and bad touch, learning who it is safe to trust vs who to be cautious with, etc. But, guiding him is not your sole responsibility either. Let the professionals help.
All the best,
Dr. Holly Counts