How often do you hug your kids?
We all live busy, stressful lives and have endless concerns as parents, but it is clear that one of the most important things we need to do is to stop and give our children a big, loving hug. Research over the past decade highlights the link between affection in childhood and health and happiness in the future.
According to Child Trends – the leading nonprofit research organization in the United States focused on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families – science supports the idea that warmth and affection expressed by parents to their children results in life-long positive outcomes for those children.
Higher self-esteem, improved academic performance, better parent-child communication, and fewer psychological and behavior problems have been linked to this type of affection. On the other hand, children who do not have affectionate parents tend to have lower self-esteem and to feel more alienated, hostile, aggressive, and anti-social.
What the Science Says About Affection
There have been a number of recent studies that highlight the relationship between parental affection and children’s happiness and success.
In 2010, researchers at Duke University Medical School found that babies with very affectionate and attentive mothers grow up to be happier, more resilient, and less anxious adults. Five hundred people were followed from when they were infants until they were in their 30s. When the babies were eight months old, psychologists observed their mothers’ interactions with them as they took several developmental tests. Then 30 years later, those same individuals were interviewed about their emotional health. The adults whose mothers showed “extravagant” or “caressing” affection were much less likely than the others to feel stressed and anxious. They were also less likely to report hostility, distressing social interactions, and psychosomatic symptoms. Researchers concluded that the hormone oxytocin may be responsible for this effect. Oxytocin is a chemical in the brain released during times when a person feels love and connection. It has been shown to help parents to bond with their children, adding a sense of trust and support between them. This bond most likely helps our brain produce and use oxytocin, causing a child to feel more positive emotions.
Next, a 2013 study from UCLA found that unconditional love and affection from a parent can make children emotionally happier and less anxious. This happens because their brains actually change as a result of the affection. On the other hand, the negative impact of childhood abuse and lack of affection impacts children both mentally and physically. This can lead to all kinds of health and emotional problems throughout their lives. What’s really fascinating is that scientists think parental affection can actually protect individuals against the harmful effects of childhood stress.
In 2015 a study out of the University of Notre Dame showed that children who received affection from their parents were happier as adults. More than 600 adults were surveyed about how they were raised, including how much physical affection they had. The adults who reported receiving more affection in childhood displayed less depression and anxiety and were more compassionate overall. Those who reported less affection struggled with mental health, tended to be more upset in social situations, and were less able to relate to other people’s perspectives.
Finally, numerous studies on the effects of massage show the positive benefits it offers to reduce anxiety in children. Massage is also a good way for parents to connect to their children, both physically and emotionally. Starting in infancy, parents can begin to massage their children, which can create a strong bond. Studies have shown that children and adults who receive massage experience less anxiety during academic stress, hospital stays, and other stressful events.
Try a Little Tenderness
From the moment you bring your baby home from the hospital, be sure to hold, touch, and rock her in your arms. Spend many precious moments caressing your baby so that her skin can touch your skin.
As your child gets older, be playful by doing fun activities like dancing together or creating silly games like pretending to be a hugging or kissing monster.
Set a reminder to make sure hugging is part of your daily routine. In the adorable Trolls movie, the Trolls wore watches with alarm clocks that would go off every hour for hug time. If that’s what it takes, then set yourself an alarm. Or make sure to give your kids hugs during certain times of the day, such as before they leave for school, when they get home from school, and before bedtime.
Another interesting idea is to use affection while disciplining your child. As you talk to him about what he did wrong, put your hand on his shoulder and give him a hug at the end of the conversation to reassure him that, even if you are not pleased with his behavior, you still love him. If your child hits his sister or brother, hug him and explain how hugging feels better than hitting.
Finally, be careful not to go overboard and smother your kids. Respect their individual comfort levels and be aware that this will change as they go through different stages.
Sandi Schwartz is a freelance writer/blogger and mother of two. She has written extensively about parenting, wellness, and environmental issues.