As adults when we feel sad and low, a loving smile, a pat on the back or a warm hug instantly makes us feel better. The effect physical affection has on children is even more positive!
There is a scientific reason for this “feel good”. Margot Sunderland, author of “The Science of Parenting” says that when children are held in loving and safe ways, it activates the natural calming chemicals in their brain such as Opioids and Oxytocin. Such children experience the world as a warm, inviting and a safe place. This goes on to enable their capacity to handle stress effectively and have a sense of calm as they grow.
Physical touch is abundant when children are infants. We hold them close to us and cuddle them. This time we spend with our infants actually builds their self-esteem for the later years. They find delight in being with us as we do with them.
Their dependence on parents makes them vulnerable and helpless. Infants keep seeking us out and reassure themselves of our presence by reaching out and touching us. Many times they fall asleep on our lap content with holding our finger or clutching our garment. This need for physical proximity is like a bottomless cup. We need to constantly fill it for younger children who by nature keep seeking out their parents.
For us parents, it’s important to know that this physical contact is deeply nourishing at all ages. As the children are a bit older and independent they will spend a lot of time with their playmates and may not express their need to be held and touched. This is a common occurrence. As parents we need to be aware of this change and continue to find opportunities through the day to show love through physical affection. Though this requires effort on our part, the habit of showing affection to our children has far reaching benefits.
Ruffling children’s hair, hugging, kissing, cuddling, a gentle touch, high fives, holding hands, a pat on the back - all these create a space for the parent to express love and affection physically to their children. Family hugs reinforce the family unit. Rough housing and physical games are tremendously helpful too in forming a strong emotional bond between parent and child.
All these touches soothe the children because of the calming chemicals released in the brain. This is a natural way of keeping the parent child bond intact. It is also a good way to build discipline as the parent is in the place of trust and love and so is able to influence their child positively. Jane Nelson, author of the book, Positive Discipline says that children do better when they feel better.
The basic action of an endearing hug or touch makes infants feel secure and loved. They actively seek it out from the trusting adults.
Hugs are an all-time favourite for us all. Whether we are happy or sad, it seems to be the perfect fix. It's been proven that this consistent show of physical affection actually keeps stress away. And when we hug our children, let it be long enough that they are the first to pull away!
Author: Mrinalini Ponappa Banerjea is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families. To know more, look us up www.parentingmatters.in