Touch Hunger

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.

holding handsRecent 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?!holding hands

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 DVDs 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. Thanks for the eye opener. I do notice with my son Zack when I touch him more he behaves more. And his personality is different if we spend a lot of time touching and tickling each other. I never thought of touch in this aspect.

  2. Rene Bonetti says:

    I have noticed the same while my son was growing up. The writer who called my attention to the subject was Dr.Ross Campbell, who wrote 2 books exorting parents for more physical demonstrations of affection. Being a clinical child psychiatrist he noticed that most of the cases of deviant behavior he saw had their roots in the inability of parents to fill what he coined as “emotional tank”, on a daily basis.
    One of the 3 methods he proposes for that tank refill is affectionate touch, as appropriate to the age range. I highly recommend this practice.

  3. Roberta Godward says:

    My twelve-year-old is developing this aversion to hugs too. However, he still enjoys his foot rub when we watch TV together!

  4. I appreciate this article so much. Thank you. I have 2 boys ages 4 and 3. The eldest gets annoyed when I stroke his hair or touch him too much (although sometimes he “lets” me). My 3 year old, however, can’t get enough. My mother-in-law said that my husband was very much the same way as my 4 year old while my 3 year old reminds me very much of … me. I love to have my hair stroked, back rubbed… any kind of touch.
    How can a parent develop the “touch hunger” of a child who, by nature, doesn’t want/need it as much?

  5. Laura A. says:

    I got lucky, in a way, because when my oldest daughter was only weeks old, I learned that she was happiest when I was touching her. She is still the same…when she is stressed she comes to my bed in the night with an “I need you” and she gets in and goes back to sleep touching some part of me. My younger daughter needs lots of touching in order to remain calm when she gets angry or upset. They don’t really cuddle, but they sure need lots of touch. Sometimes I have to tell them “Mommy just needs her own skin for a few minutes, please don’t touch me for a while” and they know to give me some space. Well sometimes it makes them touch me more because they feel insecure, but usually it works out.

    Good article. Good reminder.

  6. I have two boys 9 and 10, and they are just starting to brush away my hugs. I’m a touchy, feely person and love my hugs. Bedtime is usually the time that I get with them individually to snuggle, tickle, etc. My husband and I take turns each night with one of them. We just love this special time together. The boys seem to respond well to it too. We’ve done it since they were babies!

  7. One of your best. My teenagers will be getting more of what was second nature when they were babies. This probably helps prepare them for their partner and children as well. Thanks for the reminder. I especially liked the part about our circuitry accommodating only one “type” of emotional stimulus – could come in handy in many situations.

  8. Timely advice Ellen,

    Never have we needed vital touch as badly as we do now. As you point out the research is in….it has been for a long time. We choose to ignore it as a condition of our culture. Children and adults in many cultures walk hand in hand. It is a very selfish and selfless thing.
    We all need it and are desparate for it yet we do not know how to attain it. We have lost the early lessons of healthy touch that is a given in much of the world, through close physical contact from birth to preschool.

    Natural Nurture of which touch is a corner stone is the hallmark of peaceful nations.

    I am willing to bet that Blair, Bush and Hussain, Omar Bin ladin were not fed the elixir of life at mothers breast which is best known as the milk of human kindness…and I will also wager that they were never held in arms for their primal year.

    We lack the bond that many of the world’s people have with their children. It is a result of the biochemical triggers of natural birth which further triggers B’feeding without ‘consultants’ etc. and this bond triggers holding (and working at the same time) which science has shown increases our physical brain size by 20-30%! Not to mention our quotient of joy and harmony.

    It is hard (very hard) to put a child in a uniform and send them off to war….and next to impossible when the mother baby dyad is naturlly strong from birth.
    More links to the science and studiers can be found here:

    Keep the good stuff coming Ellen. Thank you, Colin

  9. I wholeheartedly agree with your article and I thank you for the reminder to use loving touch, even when not “necessary.”

    My 5-year-old is VERY touch-oriented. He asks for a foot and back rub almost nightly. He LOVES to have his temples rubbed while he is falling asleep. I try to accomodate him whenever possible. We also still hold hands while walking, even though I know he will not endanger himself.

    My 2-year-old has begun a new habit which I LOVE — he comes up to me and says, “need more hugs.” Oh, it just melts my heart!

  10. Crystal says:

    My 13-month-old son is such a character and so smart that sometimes when I half heartedly play with him – such as tickling his feet – he will actually pick up my finger and put it back where I was tickling him so I’ll do it again.

    My mother frequently told me that I was holding him too much (odd, as the only time I got to hold him when she was around was when he was breastfeeding) and that no one would want to watch him when I went back to work. I don’t honestly know where this thought process came from as I am told by everyone that watches him that he is so fun and pleasant to have around. Old school western doctrine?

  11. I have known about the power of touch for a looonggg time! My children are now adults and still at 30 and 28 love to be touched! My son will ask me to play with his hair or rub his back and my daughter, still cuddles at times. I love being able to go out shopping and she will take my hand or my arm. It is an extra connection! Their children also, love to be touched! I think it has made them happier people as all of them are very outgoing and happy!

  12. Thank you for writing about something that is so very vital in our lives. I remember children of friends who stopped holding their mama’s hands and it felt so sad, to me. My daughter, who just turned sweet-sixteen, still holds my hand, or hooks her arm into mine, or we walk arm-in-arm, everywhere we walk, together. I am completely blessed with her love in my life and have the most beautiful gift I could ask for. I do believe that because I continued to lovingly touch her over the years, she appreciates touch–not only because she is a tactile young woman, also because she values human beings. Breastfeeding her until she was over five years didn’t hurt, either. As Americans we undervalue touch and it’s great to find it coming back “in vogue,” again.

    Many Blessings,

    Ruth Suli Urman

  13. Paula,

    In answer to your touch hunger question, each of us has our own levels of wanting to be touched. If your 4-year-old doesn’t crave it as much as you or your 3-year-old, perhaps it’s because he’s more independent and content, in some ways. There are times when I feel so confident and “full” and whole, that I don’t “need” to be touched. It’s good to respect where he is and to know that he isn’t any less loveable, loved or loving, just the way he is.

    Hope that helps.



  14. Yes, I can see this. Years ago I read a book called the five love languages, and immediately knew my first love language was touch, my 8 yo is as well (even in the womb he was attracted to any place I would rub my belly). My hubby likes touch, but he is more task oriented. He would rather I did something for him, and he feels loved, where I feel loved with a good back rub. We are all different. but I do think that touch helps us all, we are all hungry for touch on some level or another.


  15. Carrie Stockdill says:

    I have believed in this for years. There is research from orphanages after world war II where babies that were handled, even roughly were fine but babies where bottles were propped, and little physical contact was given grew crooked spines and even perished. The disease is called marasmus, not sure how to spell it. I teach and incorporate touch by rubbing backs as I circulate around the room and read to children or give hugs at the end of the day. I am careful to mother them, so each is patted or touched. I definately notice if students are getting antsy, or squirmy that a rub on their shoulder or back soothes them and just this morning while rubbing a back in computer lab a student commented “That feels nice.” The best part is, to me too, you keep a copy of everything you give out. I remember wrapping my daughter, a 3rd grader in a big blanket and rocking her after a hard day of school. Her teachers often comment on her hugging them!!! She is now a junior in college, and still an avid hugger.

  16. The Power of human touch is real. i have 3 boys, the first i rarely held and let cry alone in his crib when he was irritable, this was the not so good advice that was given to me by well meaning family. to this day i do regret our lack of touch and it is to late to gain a great portion of that back. with my next 2 boys i did the opposite, we were very “intouch”. and now that they are grown i can see how they are more comfortable in giving affection to others and so in turn naturally fulfill their essential need of touch.

  17. Gargeril Be says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I teach, and the children in school as well as home need to know, through touch at times, that you are there. Although it is taboo, and there is always the danger of being misinterpreted, giving children the physical connection is important for all relationships. And as for touching as an adult, I read what one reader said about a child needing the touch and coming to the mother’s bed at night… well, I usually try and just keep a foot or an arm very near (touching) my husband, just to feel the aliveness and closeness of someone who loves me. We need to use our heart more, and not let our “what ifs” guide us sometimes.

  18. The eldest gets annoyed when I stroke his hair or touch him too much (although sometimes he “lets” me).

    How can a parent develop the “touch hunger” of a child who, by nature, doesn’t want/need it as much?

    I have 2 boys who hate to be massaged or stroked. They responded badly even when they were babies. I later found out they both have sensory issues (sensory integration and overexcitabilities) This means they can feel really irritated by some touch and they get overloaded easily with sensory input. It all seems to be related to the underfunctioning cerebellum but that’s another story.

    Despite this, both my boys are very easy to hug but I have to do it firmly. They love to cuddle and to hold hands—even through their teen years they were never ashamed of hugging and holding hands with me in public. For the children who seem to be rejecting touch, they might need some different ways of exploring this. A still hand on the shoulder,ie not rubbing or moving but just firm steady pressure or a firm hug –maybe briefly. Being sensitive to that hyper sensitive nervous sytem is important. They often have sensitivity to sound, taste, smell etc too.

    HTH Louise

  19. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Ellen.

    As an “ex-teacher” and now work from home mom,
    I remember how we were taught NOT to touch the children for fear of lawsuit or accusations.

    The children who were the most challenging, needed the touch the most. It was sad to see them crying out for love and boundaries and yet,
    to be able to do very little for them.

    I find that with my own children, ages 10, 8, and 6, touch is the main focus of our home schooling day. We snuggle while reading books,
    I do their hair, and they love to do mine. 🙂
    We wrestle and hold hands while dancing and at the end of a long day, each of my children loves to have their back rubbed while going to sleep.

    By this time, however, my tank is empty.

    How do we fulfill our children’s need for touch
    and not deplete our own?


    Kelly Wissink

  20. Navneet says:

    An eye opening article. I have a 11 year old boy and I have noticed that he loves to be hugged and specially stroked on the head. I noticed the same about adults. A simple heartfelt hug or holding of hands does convey much more than words ever will. I have felt this touch myself from my son, my husband and my near and dear ones. I have developed beautiful relationships in my life, by realising this universal fact.

    So people lets give each other the feeling of being wanted. Everyone give atleast one person a hug everyday and please give it like you mean it. Believe me You would feel better than the reciever. It works like MAGIC!!

    God bless everyone and I sincerely want to thank my In-laws for making me a much better person. Thank You.

  21. so true about the distance being created by technology like cell phones and internet… even if not literally, they occupy the physical body and the time that could have been spent by being physically close with a loved one

  22. Not only is this absolutely true with children and adults but also with the elderly. I thank God each day for the opportunity to homeschool my children. We share a closeness that I don’t see with their peers/parents that attend public school. Homeschooling also allows us the opportunity to care for my aging mother with dementia. Though she may not remember the names of all of her children or her grandchildren, she knows the names of mine. She hugs them each day, they play with her (puzzles and games), and she her illness has instilled more love, tenderness, compassion and patience in their wee years than I see in most adults. Please remember to hug your children your partners and don’t forget your grandparents (or your elderly relatives/neighbors).

  23. I have three children 13, 9, and 7. My oldest child has Asperger’s/high functioning Autism and some of the sensory issues that HTH Louise mentioned. As he has grown he has recognised his own need for touch. He likes hugs (tight ones) but only at his own request. If he hasn’t asked for the hug he doesn’t want it. I’ve had to back off and let him dictate his needs. But, he is a 13 year old who still wants a hug every night before bed!

    School is a very stressful time for him and he is often overloaded when he gets home. I’ve found that reading to him every night has helped calm him for sleep and given him opportunity for touch as he’ll lay his head on my shoulder or I’ll put my arm around him. It is “our time” and he guards it jealously.

    My 9 year old discovered in the last two years that she loves hugs and I’ve noticed a marked improvement in her behavior since then. She seldom responds or says anything if I rub her arm or pat her back but she is always calmer and happier afterwards. She has even recently started holding my hand in public again.

    My youngest is my “barnicle baby” who has always needed a lot of touch. She still holds my hand when we go out and wants me to carry her all the time — luckily she is small for her age! She has used touch to claim her time with mommy away from her brother and sister.

    As for being depleted at the end of the day, especially when you are homeschooling (I did this for 3 years) you *have* to claim your “me time.” I’d put on a video for the kids to watch and take a half an hour to read or take a bath. It is necessary, not selfish. Maybe take a walk after dinner while hubby plays with the kids, whatever replenishes you. If you are depleted you won’t have anything left at the end of the day to give to yourself or your spouse.

    Thank you Ellen for this very insightful article.

  24. Do you recommend any resources to help children, teens or preteens, whose parent has cancer?

  25. I thank you for this reminder. I am a teacher of special needs children and a mother of two grown boys. I breast fed both of my boys and both were rocked to sleep for the first two years of their lives. On stormy nights our bed became the only safe place in the house for everone including the two dogs. My oldest was very active, and didn’t want to sit still for very long to get his portion of touch. I found that rubbing his ears was a way to calm him down. When he was about 8 months old, he would crawl to the edge of the bed and fall into his father’s arms and do a sort of somersault. He would giggle uncontrollably and want to do it again and again. When he was two, (they were tummy sleepers back then) I would bounce him with my hands on his back when he laid down in the bed. I would tell him a story or sing a song with him as I bounced him. He always loved this. We did this until he was probably 9 or 10. When we read books together we always sat very close to each other. He got closer when he was sharing the space with his little brother. He was always rather difficult to get going in the morning. I would call him several times, and then we would go in and pull his covers up and tickle his toes. He would always giggle even before we got close to his feet, but he always laid perfectly still until we grabbed his toes. I did this even through high school. I also included those back pats, head rubs, and shoulder hugs as well. So there are ways to get those touches in. My younger one was a clinger from the get go. I never had to worry about getting a hug from him. He was in my lap everytime we started to read. Both the boys give me a hug when the see me.
    To the mom’s who have children with SI, brushing down their arms with a hair brush helps sometimes. Also try walking up their arms hand over hand with your thumb around one side of their arm and the other fingers behind gently squeezing as you go up and down. This is very calming and I have students say, “do it again,” all the time. My husband loves a foot message or a very gentle light touch scalp message.