When in Doubt, Hug it Out

I’m sure you hugged your kids today.  You probably even hugged them a few times.  Hopefully you hugged them at least more than once.  But if you stop to think about it, I mean really think about it, how many times did you hug your kids today?


When babies are in utero, we carry them around in the safety of our wombs for about 40 weeks.  Safe in snug in that warm little space, we nurture them with the food we eat while they grow and develop.  We talk to them, we sing to them, and, instinctively, we rub our bellies.


When they finally make their way into this shockingly cold world, we wrap them up tight and keep them safe and warm.  And we hold them constantly because the simple act of touch can soothe a newborn in an instant (most of the time, anyway).


We continue to hug them and hold them as they begin to grow into toddlers and explore the world around them.  We kiss their boo boos, hug away their tears, and rub their backs as they fall asleep.


From that first moment of conception, babies are conditioned to rely on touch as measure of comfort.  They trust that we will be there for them, both emotionally and physically, when the going gets tough and times are good.  They crave that interaction.  They reach out to us, crawl toward us, and slobber us with big, wet kisses.


They are soothed by the familiar touch of a parent.


But a strange thing sometimes happens when children grow older.  Some parents start to pull away from physical affection when children become more independent.  Boundaries shift.  Hugs and kisses become less frequent (particularly in the United States, according to some research).


It’s a shame, really, because so much good can come from the simple act of hugging, hand holding, and even just a pat on the head.


Research shows that touch decreases stress hormones and activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex – the area of the brain linked to feelings of reward and compassion.


The latest research into the healing power of touch points to many benefits, including:  Decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, increased attention/focus, decreased stress, more cooperation, better immune system functioning, and even increased weight gain in premature infants (as studied by Tiffany Field) to name a few.


While much of the research indicates increased positive reactions when touch is provided by a loved one, one study even found that a friendly pat provided by a teacher resulted in students being three times as likely to speak up in class (Nicolas Gueguen).


Bottom line:  Kids need touch.  We all need touch, really.


Below are five reasons to hug your kids more and more each day:


Belonging:  Hugs, kisses, and physical affection between a parent and child increase that child’s feeling of belonging and trust.  In short, it helps them feel safe.


Conveys compassion:  When you hug your child often (not just when times are tough) you show your child that you care.  As John Mayer recently wrote, “When you show me love, I don’t need your words…love is a verb”.  You have to show it, every day.


Decreases stress:  Research shows that physical touch decreases stress hormones, but you don’t need to read the research to make sense of this one.  You know that moment when your sad/overwhelmed/frustrated child melts into your arms and finally lets it all out?  That’s the power of a hug.  That’s stress relief.


Bonding and communication:  Hugging and other forms of physical affection are known to increase bonding between parents and children and improve communication.  It makes sense.  The closer we feel, the more open we are to verbalizing our feelings, needs, and desires.


Increased immunity and resilience:  Hugging your kids more often can help them become more resilient to stress and improve their immune systems.  It’s true.  Who doesn’t want healthier kids who are better able to cope with stress?


Everybody needs a hug now and then, but if you give and receive hugs often…you just might find that your whole family will be better for it.  So get out and there and hug your kids today!  (8-12 times per day, at least.)


Incidentally, kids who are deprived of physical affection can become porcupine-like and recoil at the slightest act of touch.  Isn’t that heartbreaking?  Let’s put an end to that, shall we?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


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