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. One of my son’s came from a Russian orphanage where the children were pretty much ignored. He is now 10 (he was 2 when we got him) and still requires a lot of holding, hugs, etc. I still remember when he was put in my arms. He literally clutched my clothes and wouldn’t let go! He was so solumn, but after just a few days given plenty of attention, he smiled and responded to us very well.

  2. I have 2 boys with ADHD and bipolar who are 6 and 8. I think that it’s a great disservice to our children to NOT touch them. When my oldest was born I NEVER put him down unless I absolutely had to. I was totally enamored with him and he knew it. With my 2nd child it was harder to find time to hold him and cuddle since they are only 16 mths apart in age. This was particularly hard since this was around the time the ADHD became prevalent in my oldest. I adapted the best I could but I do notice a difference in their demeanors now. My 8 year old is very secure and has no problem doing what he wants to do and periodically running up for a hug or to just sit down next to me and cuddle for a second before taking off like a streak of lightening. With his bipolar the doctors are amazed at how affectionate he is…I’m not sure if being affectionate is considered normal or not for bipolar kids but I don’t question it. My 6 year old on the other hand is much the same way but he’s very “needy” for hugs and kisses and words of encouragement. If his day starts out less then perfect he is a basket case until the next morning. He is getting better as he gets older but he constantly needs that physical reminder that I’m there.

    From a different point of view, when I was a kid I was very much into NOT being touched unless it was on my terms (which was never). I’m not sure why I was like that but my parents never questioned it and basically left me alone. Now that I’m an adult I really notice what I was missing as a child. I hate the fact that I refuse to let anyone comfort me out of habit. I was always told I was “strong” because I would not accept the affection and I learned to deal with my own problems by myself to a drastic point. I definitely regret not letting my parents hug me and I still have a kind of inner turmoil over that. I highly recommend for anyone that has a child like this, no matter how old, to just hug them anyway!! Even if it means they turn away and yell and act like you’ve got the plague…at least they’ll know that you care. And that will make a huge difference in their life later on.

  3. Nicole Mann says:

    Good article and responses!

    I am a massage therapist and mother of a first grader who loves massage. I am one of many therapists teaching healthy touch to school children. I’ve received so many good responses…and yet many fearful people too who question what I am doing and even my integrity.

    As someone with a history of sexual abuse I have a strong desire to help children with the concept and experience of healthy touch, how to establish boundaries and say no.

    Respect is key.

    So thank you for this article. Keep informing people of the vital need of touch It’s an idea whose time has come.

    Nicole Mann, CMT

  4. fritz bachman says:

    We men and boys suffer a great deal from lack of touch. As our society has developed norms for male behavior, it has decided that boys shouldn’t like to be touched. Perhaps, this is a way to produce more boys who can become soldiers? I was lucky enough to have a mom who touched me so lightly to help me get to sleep, that I still remember how it felt, though I am 61.My wife’s family does tickle-back, where they stroke a back very lightly with fingernails. Everybody loves it. I do too!

  5. My sister feels that my husband has gone overboard on touching my daughter, and thinks that is why she is craving to be touched or to touch boys (she is 12). I am trying to figure out why this physical contact is so important to her at such a young age. You can see that she tries to touch her older (male) cousin whenever she is near him. How can I help her to funnel this kind of energy? I thought maybe my husband should cuddle with her more while reading or watching TV but my sister feels that it will only make things worse.

    Please give me your thoughts on the subject.


  6. I love to hear so many people agreeing about the importance of human touch and working on putting it to use in their lives! There is a term called “attachment parenting” that is practiced by many and is basically a philosophy of parenting via as much attachment between parents and children as possible. This includes physical and emotional attachment of course. Lots of touching and being tuned into your child’s emotional needs, etc. There is even an organization called Attachment Parenting International ( you want to learn more.

    The idea of lots of human attachment just makes sense. In the stone age if parents had set their babies down in another part of the cave and gone off to do other things the human species wouldn’t have survived very long! As a modern day mom I found that natural birth and immediate skin to skin contact was the first step. Breastfeeding provided tons of skin contact and bonding from immediately after birth until my kids outgrew their need to nurse. Carrying your baby instead of pushing them around in a stoller, snuggling, hugging, sleeping together, etc. are all ways to provide (and receive!) regular touching that we all need so much.

    My kids are 14, 12, 9 and 6 now but I have practiced attachment parenting all their lives. I always carried them in my arms or in a fabric sling as infants and toddlers. If I brought a stroller I used it to push my “stuff” around (purse, diaper bag, toys, shopping bags, etc) and carried my child instead of the other way around. People would marvel and sometimes think I was strange. I used to go to the zoo regularly with a baby in the sling, a toddler by the hand and older kids running on ahead and a small fanny back with a diaper, and some money and that was it. I would see all these moms with huge wagons and unwieldy double strollers and wonder why they subjected themselves to hauling those heavy things in and out of the car and pushing them all over creation all in the name of not having to touch or hold their children. I would rather carry the heavy child than push or carry the heavy stroller all day!

    Now that I have a teen and preteen the amount of human touching we share has decreased from when they were little, but I still make it a priority. I rub their back a little when they wake in the morning, hug and kiss them while seeing them off at the door when they leave for school, throw my arm around their shoulder or loop my arm in theirs when I am asking them about their day later and hug and kiss them at least once more before bed. Sometimes they are embarassed by me touching them in front of their friends so I make a point of hugging them before we leave the house so they can just shoot me a smile and a goodbye as they get out of the car when I am dropping them off somewhere and we have already had our chance to connect before we left.

    Years ago I read somewhere that human touch drops to an all time low during the teen years. They are “too old” to be touched much by their parents anymore and too young to have a spouse or children yet to snuggle with. The article indicated that teens with the least amount of human touch from their families tended to be the most apt to be involved in physical relationships with other teens. I guess it is not surprising that teens seek physical touch from each other if human touch from other sources drops to an all time low at that point in their lives. I have never forgetten that article as it was very sad to realize that this whole population kind of gets over looked in terms of appropriate human touch. I read that article when my kids were smaller, but now that I have a teen myself I always make a point of remembering that he needs to be touched even though he may not always ask for it.

    Go Hug Your Kid Everyone!

  7. I once learned that it doesn’t even have to be “huggy kissy” touching. Just touching, even while passing a pencil over, has value. Human beings need touch.

  8. What a wonderful concept to remember during the holiday season. When my children were little, hugs and kisses were a regular part of the day. Now that they’re older, I’m noticing that days and days can pass without any touch. Thanks, Ellen

    Michelle N, CA

  9. Christina says:

    Thank you for this awesome article! Not only is touch crutial for child development…it saves lives.

    I am a 33 yr old mother of two who 33 years ago was born 11 weeks premature and given virtually no chance of survival. Just prior to my birth, my mom worked for a neonatologist who had seen some groundbreaking research on how skin on skin contact with pre-mature infants and parents showed significant improvements in thier chances of survival. My parents immediately held me all the time, skin on skin, and spoke to me regularly. At just a few weeks old, my parents were told to start to make arrangements for my funeral. After spending nearly three months in the hospital, I went home weighing just over 4lbs. Thankfully, I developed normally and have lead a full life with no long term effects of my early entry into this world.

    I am 100% convinced that I am here today becaues my parents took a “new age” approach to attempt to save my life.

  10. What about a teenage boy (16)who does not like when I his mother go near him? I try to just touch his shoulder or hand sometimes to get him use to it but he does not like it. He does let his father put his arm over his shoulder sometimes but even does not let his grandmother give him a full hug. Any suggestion as I am worried for his future and everyone here is saying touch is needed besides the fact I wish I could kiss and hug him and only received 1 kiss from him around the holidays. That would make it once a year.

  11. Love this article, thanks for reposting and reminding! I don’t know anyone who is not touch-starved. Being reminded to give it generously is an awesome holiday thought!

  12. A great reminder! My son (now 11), can’t fall asleep until I give him a little back rub. I know someday soon he will be “too old” for this, but I will continue to touch/hug him no matter what! lol

  13. I work in an elementary 2nd grade classroom where all the children love hugs.Even those 8 yr. olds who are not in my classroom run up to get a hug in the hall way before threir day starts.A hug does wonders..A child was having a bad day a week ago and had gotten in trouble for disruptive behavior. A little encouragement and a hug was all it took for a turnaround!

  14. Aardy Willow says:

    Oh thank you Ellen, for being the purveyor of great information for us as parents and professionals working with ‘little souls’. I took this article to school and handed it out (in hard copy) to 80 of my psychology students and another 50 of my teaching colleagues. How easy it is to forget this basic human need. This applies also to elderly people who have lost the opportunity to be touched by family and friends in their nursing home environments. If you’ve ever given a foot massage to an elderly person, watch the expression on their faces change! Thanks again!!!! Aardy

  15. Aardy Willow says:

    Oh and I meant to add that you could start a website called “Nurturing Old Souls” as well as “Raising Small Souls”!

  16. Remember that in our efforts to nurture & love our children through touch, not to forget to provide this nurturing to our partners. We are never too old to need loving touch.

  17. I was just reading a book about the importance of touch when this hit my inbox. I find co-sleeping a wonderful way to stay in “touch” with each other. Even if my son is too busy to stop and cuddle during the day, he is a snuggle-bug at night. I can see how it will get harder though… It is so important. I crave my husbands warm touch every day and can’t wait for his hugs when he returns home.

  18. Love this article!! A nice squeeze on the arm from an old friend in the grocery store, for instance, causes a sweeping relaxing warm comforting feeling, emotionally but even more so physically! It leaves me feeling the way I do after a nice massage. My lil one is very huggy! She will gaze at me and put her hand against my cheek and say how cute I am, LOL. I feel so good that her father and I have always been so affectionate and tender towards her, you can see it in how she reciprocates it and how she treats little animals. I am glad to see an article like this. I wish sometimes we could all just sit around and groom each other like apes. Seriously, though, the world would be a better place perhaps if we all took time to really reach out and touch someone literally.
    Great Article!!!!! Thank you!!