Most parents get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that comes with having children. We constantly find ourselves busy, stressed to the max, and pondering that day’s concerns. We often forget that the most important thing we can do for our children as parents is to give them a simple hug.
Over the past ten years, research has proven time and time again that parental affection toward our children significantly affects their future happiness and health. In 2010, Duke University Medical School researchers found that infants with affectionate and attentive parents grew up to be happier, more resilient, and less anxious adults.
This study began when the babies were just eight months old, assessing their mother’s affection and physical touch. They were tested and rated on a scale to measure affection and attention levels. The participants returned to the study when they were in their 30s and were interviewed about their emotional health. The study concluded that the adults whose mothers showed “extravagant” or “caressing” affection were much less likely than the others to feel stressed and anxious. The study also found this is most likely due to the production of oxytocin in the earlier stages of life.
Oxytocin is a chemical in the brain released during times when a parent feels love and connection. It has been shown to help parents bond with their children, adding a sense of trust and support between them. This bond most likely allows our brain to produce and use oxytocin, causing a child to feel more positive emotions.
Things have changed in early childhood development, especially right after birth, to help support this bond and connection with babies. Most recently, the practice of skin-to-skin contact with newborn babies has been used more often. It has been found that skin-to-skin contact for babies, particularly between mom and baby, can help calm babies and lull them to sleep, making them feel secure and loved instantly. According to an article in Scientific American, children who lived in a deprived environment, like an orphanage, had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who lived with their parents. Scientists believe that the lack of physical contact in orphanages is a significant factor in these physical changes.
Most of these studies have been conducted since infancy to see the effects over the years. That does not mean that if you didn’t do skin-to-skin with your baby, you have run out of time. As we just learned, physical touch and affection towards children greatly influence their behavior, sense of self, and overall mental and physical health. There are plenty of ways to promote affection in your family and your household.
A concept that I have promoted as an early childhood development specialist is Love Taps. These small “taps” or physical touches from you 10-15 times a day will make your child feel that affection and that connectedness. This concept is so simple in our busy lives but will remind us of those little times when we can connect to our child on a physical level. Examples of this can include “tapping” their head as they play, rubbing their back as you walk upstairs to bedtime, making sure to fit in that morning hug before they run to catch the bus. These little gestures will only take seconds. But they will accumulate throughout their day, making them feel that connection that is so important.
Recently, I watched a clip from the popular Trolls movie. The Trolls all wore watches with alarm clocks that would go off every hour for “hug time.” My initial reaction was that hugs were becoming a task and less of an instinct. Yet, in today’s world, our watches tell us to take a deep breath! It is just an advanced way of the oven timer reminding us to check on our baking cookies. The difference is, our children do not need to observe us being reminded to hug them. Instead, set your reminders mentally or digitally for specific times in your day that you will give a hug, read a story, or snuggle up with them. Even five minutes will do wonders with the bond you are trying to grow with them.
Another new wave of parenting style is the idea of positive parenting. I think it is a concept that may hold some hints about how we should speak and act toward our children. Although positive parenting practices focus more on positive ways to phrase boundaries, create discipline, and teach our children, I believe you could take it a step further by incorporating more affection in our parenting styles.
You can do this by using affection while you are disciplining your children. How? While you explain to them how their actions were a poor choice, make sure to touch them physically. Perhaps with a hand on their shoulder or holding their hands. This gentle sign of affection will help them focus on you when teaching them about their behavior. And it also subconsciously lets them know you are still there for them.
Showing affection to our littles helps them feel connected and secure. At the same time, it teaches them how to be affectionate and show empathy and love. These are traits so hard to teach children, especially in an age of less physical touch and more screen time. Small, simple gestures of affection will go a long way in a world of less skin-to-skin contact.