Hunger for Touch

Perhaps the most effective way to determine the value of an idea is to determine the negative effects that occur when that concept is missing.

Let’s examine the power of human touch regarding children and the accompanying effects that can result from insufficient physical contact.

Recent research in neuroscience has shown that loving touch is not an optional aspect of childrearing; it is essential for child development, and a lack of touch damages not only individuals, but our whole society. Loving touch releases the hormones oxytocin and dopamine, while infants who have not been touched have an increase in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Electrical stimulation in laboratories demonstrates that pleasurable behavior and violent behavior are mutually exclusive. Like a light switch that can be either “on” or “off”- the human body can only handle one sensation- be it pleasure or violence- in a single moment. The results of the study testify that the more pleasurable feelings a human being experiences, the less likely violent urges are to surface.

Newborn animals that were placed in isolation invariably developed aggressive and self-destructive behaviors. Perhaps an increase in affectionate physical contact would move society towards world peace more effectively than political negotiations?!

For various reasons, Western society has become a “touch-hungry” culture where fear of lawsuits and social norms restrict tender touch outside of intimate relationships. There is an endless supply of “cradles” for our babies- bouncy seats, swings, and exersaucers- which all serve the purpose of freeing Mom or Dad’s hands to be busy with something other than holding and cuddling Baby.

Touch is a universal language that transcends verbal ability in communication. A squeeze of a hand, the pat on the back, or a gentle embrace, convey a primal message of comfort and tenderness.

A reassuring hug is the natural reaction towards the child who is upset or frustrated. Yet, what about those busy days where things go smoothly? Does the child lose out, in a certain respect, when she behaves well all day and does not receive that comforting embrace?

It is essential to incorporate non-responsive touch into our children’s day in order to provide the emotional and neurological benefits of touch. Try stroking your son’s hair while you do schoolwork together or rubbing your daughter’s back as he settles down to bed. These actions come more naturally when children are toddler or preschool age, as they grow older more of an effort needs to be made to remember to continue physical closeness.

Reading a story or watching a movie together is a beneficial time to put your arm around your child- even if she is a teenager! As children age, many will resist touch as they struggle to become independent. Don’t feel offended or insulted if your child is in that stage- rest assured that it is totally normal! Without any fanfare or comments, continue to brush his shoulder as you fix his color, or pat her back as you smooth her hair. Nobody is too old for demonstrative love, even if many a thirteen-year-old thinks so!

Infant massage is a wonderful manner of incorporating loving touch in a baby’s early years of development. There are many books and DVD‘s available that demonstrate effective techniques.

If you live with a partner, take the time and energy to make sure that you fulfill one another’s need for touch on a regular basis, or schedule a massage with a professional.

Our modern lifestyle includes phone conversations, text messages, and emails, which all serve to make us more “in touch” with each other- while the physical distance between us limits actually being “in touch”.

My son appreciates a back rub as he recounts the sports he played during recess at bedtime, even though he often resists hugs during the day. Discover the timing and methods of loving touch that work for your family and share your tips below!

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  1. The truth is that I actually wrote this article a year ago, and I’ve become even more passionate about this topic since then. A busy week (one son got stitches in his forehead, another fell off his bike…) was another reason I decided to bring an older article back to life!

    Keep on loving all the small souls!


  2. Hi Ellen, what a timely article. My 7-year-old son has been brushing off my usual “welcome home” hugs, but he does like the night-time snuggles. Thanks for all the great advice!

  3. I attribute some of the issues that I’m currently working out with my therapist to a childhood devoid of touch. My father virtually never touched me as far as I can remember, and my mother hardly ever did either. It has taken me a long time to overcome my issues of trust and intimacy. Please give your child a hug now! Jenna, mom of Kaitlyn- 19 months

  4. Aliza G says:

    Wow – so true especially when they become “tweens” and resist touch. My 12 year old daughter doesn’t want that hug or kiss, but welcomes me holding her while we watch tv or she’ll let me scratch her back…sometimes she’ll come in bed in the morning for a cuddle now and then.

  5. Maury Mangan says:

    Touch is a “touchy” subject in our culture these days. No one is allowed to touch anyone spontaneously or affectionately without specifically asking the question, “May I touch you?” School and health care environments have become self-defensive, litigious,and rigid in terms of touch as a communicator. In some cultures, people walk arm in arm,sit on laps,tickle,drape their arms over each other, hug, unselfconsciously and happily. They don’t need reminders or scientific proof of the benefits of touching. Thanks for the lesson. Guess we need it.

  6. Valerie Martin says:

    When we adopted our daughter at age 2 and a half she had not been touched or cuddled very much. She had been removed by the state from her birth mother when she was three months old and had lived in five different foster homes before we adopted her. She resisted touch by that time and still is not comfortable with it most of the time (she’s now 14). I’ve often felt that some window closes at a certain age and if children don’t receive the human touch they need during that time it may be too late. I have always continued to touch, hug, cuddle my daughter but I wish I could have had her when she was an infant. I know how important human touch is to all people, but especially to babies and children. We are born with skin hunger; touch is not just nice, it is necessary and essential for healthy emotional development.

  7. christie N says:

    My parents loved me very much and gave hugs and kiss.My grandmother used to rock me in her rocking chair in the mornings when i stayed overnight. When I think back on the things in my life that made me feel the most loved and safest. It was before the sun came up in an old rocking chair wiht my gram holding me.

  8. Michelle says:

    I didn’t have an overly “touchy-feely” upbringing… it was always awkward to hug family members. BUT, my 3 year old daughter is exceptionally affectionate. I think the window Valarie spoke of is true! I held my daughter almost exclusively for the first 5 months of her life, and as often as possible after that… it’s to the point where she’s affectionate during dinner, while we’re sitting, when we’re standing in line, just about anywhere. I treasure it so much, and hope that she doesn’t get too resistant as she gets older. I think it helps with discpline, too… it’s much easier to convince her to behave properly when I’m giving her a slight rub on the back.

  9. I shed a tear as I neared the end of this article because it reminds me of what my 20 year marriage is missing today! Fortunately, I have 2 daughters that love my touches, hugs and kisses. I will surely miss their return touch after my daughters grow up and move out and on in life.

    My parents were very touchy with me, but I guess my husband’s parents weren’t with him. I am left with touch hunger more times than I’d like. I appreciate the suggestion of getting a message. That will be a nice replacement, although still lacking the love that touch communicates.

    I can’t wait to give my girls a big hug tomorrow morning!

  10. Chrissy, I can’t believe the similarities between us. I am in a 20 year marriage and have 2 daughters and often think the same thing…….that I will be touch starved when the kids leave home. I often wondered if it was something wrong with me but I guess I am not alone. thanks for sharing.

  11. Kariina in Louisiana says:

    I grew up in a Scandinavian area where hugs and kisses were rarely given within the family and never by others! I thought this was the norm until my college boyfriend introduced me to his Italian relatives! It was almost too much for me!
    Now, many years later, my husband and I lavish hugs and kisses upon our only begotten son! Even as a baby he resisted being touched! I had to quit our baby massage class as he howled the whole time! Now that our boy is 8, it is harder to chase him down for a hug or a kiss, but we make sure he knows he is loved whether he likes it or not! (I think he really does love it, despite the protest!)

  12. What about positive and safe touches from those outside “our circle?” It seems that one of the key ingredients missing in our own culture ia these kinds of touches between a coach and a child, a teacher and a child, an old man on a park bench and a child. I know these are sensitive areas, but as a stay-at-home Dad, I often have to experience negative reactions when I am at a park with my 3-year old twins and I help another child (who is not my own) up a ladder when struggling, only to find an overly concerned parent next to me. Is this really the way we want to be as a society? How can we live in fear and still give safe and positive touches, and allow those same touches from others in our lives?

  13. Carrie Stockdill says:

    I teach 9 and 10 year olds, and have always believed in the power of touch. I was told many years ago “You’ll hug kids until you get your 1st case of headlice,” I said bring it on. I’ve been in many debates over the years and just decided it was too important to me as a professional not to touch my children (students). Marasmus is a disease where the spine grows crooked and physical development is stunted because of lack of touch. I read everyday to my class and walk around the room and rub backs while I read. They love it. Hurray for bringing this up again. We can’t hear it enough. I really think nursing homes should develop protocals of touch, offering backrubs or footrubs at bedtime, and other comfort measures involving touch. It connects us all not just little ones.

  14. I remember years ago before I became a Mommy and I read an article in a magazine about touch, I think the title was “touch sparks love” and how much children need to be touched. I was 19 at the time I read that and it made me cry because as a child my parents stopped touching us after we got to be about 5 yrs old. I remember as a child faking a fever just so Mom would put her hand on my forehead. At 14 I discovered boys, real live human beings that hug and kiss…oh man, I was in trouble with a capital T! As a Mom now I will NEVER EVER stop hugging and kissing my kids, my grown kids and my younger kids all get hugged a lot from me. I don’t ever want them to feel what I felt as a child, how incredibly sad that I had such touch hunger and it would have been so easy for my parents to hug us, hugs don’t cost a thing and they benifit both the giver and the reciever.
    Thank you for your article, more parents need to hear this.

  15. Jennifer August says:

    I love this article. My parents grew up in touchless families and so did their parents. It took me a long time to realize that I craved it. When my daughter came it was very unnatural to me and I was uncomfortable watching my husband hold and bathe her. We got baby massage books and learned together that it was healthy and seemed to calm her. To this day, we rub her back while she sits to play, we rub her head, her cheeks, give eskimo kisses with our noses, there is so much touching that now she returns the favor. When I come home from work, she gives me a big hug and then rubs my face and says “reeee waaaaax” since when we rub her back we tell her REEEEE LAAAAAX.
    She is now doing it on her own and we are told she soothes friends in preschool who fall or get hurt.
    YEAH! We broke the cycle! We also taught her that if she gets hurt and someone isn’t there to hug her, that she can hug herself and feel better right away. 🙂

  16. Sherri McFall says:

    Growing up, my family was probably somewhere in the middle of the hugging scale with young children, but once we got older the physical affection sort of dried up. The night my 3 yr old daughter was born, once the hospital was done with testing and they brought her to my room, I laid awake and held her in my arms the entire rest of the night. We share spontaneous affection any and every time we feel like it. My daughter will come to me now with a bottle of lotion and ask if I want to trade foot massages. She is a happy happy little girl, and I believe that sharing our affection with each other is the KEY reason for that. Thanks for the great article.

  17. It is so sad that touch has become such a sore subject and that people have to be so wary of touching each other. Obviously we would all benefit from more affection, even between strangers. Have you noticed that people don’t even shake hands like they used to in greeting for fear of catching the flu. My children have never and I hope will never have “touch hunger”. No matter how upset I may be with them, I always hug and kiss them at night and in the morning before we part. You never know what may happen…Both my parents were affectionate with me and no matter any areas that lacked, I grew up to be more self-sufficient and confident because of it.

  18. I strongly agree with this message. My 8-yr old son has ADHD & bi-polar and with every new teacher at the start of school, I always tell them that he needs the physical touch to help him transition to the next activity or at the beginning of the day. It is very sad that in this society, people have to be cautious and leary whether it is okay to touch a friend. It should not have to be that way. There is too much ice that “needs to be broken.”