The importance of touch

From hugs to high-fives, kids of all ages need to physically feel our love

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Hugs and cuddles between parents and kids dwindle during the school years — and by adolescence, they’re pretty much gone. But there are good reasons to keep them, or some variation of them, alive.

Touch = health

“Physical contact is important across the lifespan,” says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Positive touch stimulates pressure receptors under the skin, lowering the heart rate, slowing the breath, decreasing stress hormones and boosting the immune system. In other words, touch helps bodies stay healthy.

Plus, it raises kids’ spirits immeasurably; science has shown that positive touch lowers depression, says Field. “Think of touch as a kind of shorthand, a powerful way to communicate affection, care and concern for your child,” says Calgary parent educator and mom of five Judy Arnall. When your daughter comes off the field and you say, “Tough game,” your words acknowledge her feelings. When you sling your arm around her shoulders, that’s the nurturing part.

Positive touch also teaches kids to read social and emotional cues. “When you and your son are wrestling and it gets too rough, there’s that wonderful moment of negotiation,” says Michael Ungar, a Dalhousie University professor of social work and the author of several books, including We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids. This is how kids learn about appropriate touch, what feels good, what doesn’t, and how relationships work — about boundaries, communicating your feelings, expressing your needs and responding to someone else’s.

Touchy, touchy

Temperament can be a factor in how much or what kind of physical contact children need, says Arnall. One kid might be glued to his dad’s leg in the playground after school, while another zips by his mom for a quick high-five. But both kids are connecting with their secure base.

“What we’ve learned is that less ‘huggy’ kids often dislike unpredictable touch,” says Field. “But they may love a back rub if you ask first.”

Keeping in touch

While a younger child tends to always want a lot of physical contact with parents, a preteen might be embarrassed if you take her hand in public. By the time she enters her teen years, she might even rebuff you at home. Teens are notoriously moody too: One day she shrugs you off; the next she’s desperate for that hug.

Keep offering, says Arnall, but follow your child’s cues. When he’s young, keep up routines like bedtime tuck-ins. As he gets older, find new ways to show your affection — an arm wrestle, even a haircut or a manicure can connect you with your teen. And one day, he might just give you the hug you need when you’re having a bad day.

Talk about it

Michael Ungar is a social work professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the author of several books, including We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids. He recalls boarding a small, crowded bus in Egypt with his children, then five and seven. “They were immediately taken from me and passed from one person to the next until they reached the two grandmothers sitting at the back.” Ungar continues: “There’s something profound about allowing that trust.”

“It’s unfortunate that we’re moving away from such things,” he says. In our efforts to keep kids safe — implementing no-touch policies in schools, for example — we risk imposing sterility in relationships. “How are kids going to learn to distinguish good and bad touch if they never experience it outside of home?” Ungar asks. What they need is language to talk about it, he says. Ungar’s advice is to talk with kids about touch throughout childhood, and use concrete examples whenever possible: “I noticed your coach put his arm around your shoulders and you looked uncomfortable. Did it make you feel bad? How did you handle it?”

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