With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, we want to take some time to address the important topic of expressing healthy touch and affection to your children. It is important to show your children that you love them and care about them every day of the year, but it can be especially meaningful to some children when you express your love for them on a widely celebrated holiday like Valentine’s Day. For some, this year may be the first time someone has ever intentionally shown them that they are loved and cared for on this special day.
We All Need It
Neonatologists believe that touch is the very first sense we develop in the womb, and it is usually the last sense to leave us when we die, making touch the true universal language that every human speaks (Families Are Forever, Class 202). Dr. David Cross, Director of the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development, said, “Humans must have touch, for it is as essential as water, food, and air.” Dr. Karyn Purvis herself also said, “Touch is more dynamic and powerful than any other form of communication. It sets the course and trajectory for life. No other sense promotes deeper bonds or is more important to our long-term emotional and physical health.” Giving and receiving healthy touch is essential to our lives as humans. According to Mental Health America, love and affection help children to feel safe, secure, accepted, and comforted by building up their confidence and self-esteem, which is considered necessary for a child to have good mental health (Reference, 2020).
Affection Leads to Connection
Touch can show affection and give comfort or assurance. A simple hug or pat on the back triggers regions in the brain that develop serotonin, which releases natural antidepressants and endorphins that reduce pain and promote a sense of well-being. That is potentially why Dr. Purvis said, “Touch is one of the most important vehicles used for building trust.” Touch is the foundation for building trust and connecting with your children. According to AGCI’s US Child Advocacy Director Jill Crewes, MSW, “nurturing touch is a non-verbal way to communicate that ‘we are connected, you matter, you are safe, you can trust me, and you can rely on me.’”
There are many ways parents can show love and affection to their children. When children are younger, parents often show affection through physical demonstration, such as hugging, cuddling, and holding their children. When children get a little older and reach toddler age, holding their hand while they walk is a good way to show affection and has the added benefit of giving them a feeling of security. As children continue to get older, they usually become less reliant on physical touch, so parents are encouraged to show their affection in non-physical ways such. Being intentional in making eye contact, using a kind tone of voice, and simply being present and accessible are all ways to show your children that you love them and care about them.
Sometimes, it can be challenging to show a child who is less receptive to physical affection that you love them, especially when their lack of receptiveness comes from past trauma. In this case, expand your ideas of affection. You may think of cuddling or handholding as primary forms of affection, but there are many ways to connect with your child beyond physical affection! Try experimenting with different ideas, such as standing nearby with open arms, writing an encouraging note, giving an air high five, or being silly together.
In all, it is important to remember that each child is different, and a child may reject comfort for a number of reasons, including but not limited to a lack of connection, past experiences, shame, negative thinking, mental health concerns, and more, so be careful not to blame yourself if they are initially hesitant or resistant to your love. Keep pursuing them in small, gentle ways until they are ready to receive it. For a child with a history of trauma, make sure to not touch the child without him/her being aware; you always want to make eye contact and ask permission if you can give them a hug to avoid triggering trauma responses.
Intentionality is Key
“In our culture, the absence of touch is one of the causalities of the speeds of our lives. A lot of our parents are running break-neck speed, and safe, connecting touch is lost in the muddle,” said Dr. Purvis. Being deprived of healthy touch is just as damaging as abuse, and if you as a parent cannot accept touch, you will not be able to teach your children to accept touch either, for “we can only take a child where we have actually been ourselves” (Families Are Forever, Class 202). This Valentine’s Day, and onward, we encourage you to slow down, be intentional, and show your children that you see them, you love them, and you care for them. “Affectionate, warm, valuing, nurturing touch is a tremendous gift to give to any child,” said Dr. Purvis, and if nothing else, we hope that is the gift you will give your children this year.
For more information on the topic of healthy touch and affection, register for the Families Are Forever Class 202: Healing and Healthy Touch.