Teachers aren’t allowed to hug students. Often, students aren’t allowed to touch each other, either. Parents see their kids only in the mornings and evenings, and on weekends. We spend more time facing screens than we spend facing our family. And we’re seeing the results. The negative results, if it wasn’t clear.
I’m not blaming anyone. I teach my kids the same stuff. Stranger danger is real, and as a society, we’re teaching our kids not to let anyone — including aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents — touch them without asking first. Along with teaching kids not to hit, we teach them not to hug too tightly and that many people don’t want to be hugged. Our kids listen, and they internalize the message. But the problems don’t end with kids owning their bodies.
More and more kids are acting hyperactive and impulsive. Some of them have ADHD, and some have “learned” ADHD. Academics are increasingly important, resulting in longer school days with fewer breaks, as well as less physical education, and art. As a result, there’s more structured time and less free play. (More on that later.)
It’s becoming demonstrably harder for kids to sit still, whether in the classroom or at the dinner table. Aggression and violence are becoming increasingly common, and rebellious behavior is even more so. The number of single-parent homes is skyrocketing, and the parent-child connection, once thought to be unbreakable, is crumbling before our very eyes. In fact, anyone whose teen or adult child still likes them has accomplished an amazing, outstanding feat.
This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
People are social beings. We like to be in groups. We group ourselves as families, as friends, and as classmates or coworkers. And emotional health depends, in large part, on healthy interactions with other human beings.
If there’s one thing that can help every situation mentioned above, it’s touch. Yes, touch. An inexpensive and easy medicine that helps more things than you can imagine. How and where did we go wrong?
Let’s talk about touch.
Touch and Autism
Autism, at its core, is a social disorder. Autistic people have a hard time understanding implicit social rules, following them, and forming healthy friendships. One of the most natural behaviors — connecting with other people — is difficult, almost impossible, for autistic children and adults. That’s what autism is.
Autistic children may have impaired neural response to touch. In other words, an inborn inability to respond correctly to touch may be one of the causes of autism. Does that mean that overuse of touch (as encouraged in attachment parenting, for example) can reduce the effects of autism later in life? Possibly so, and there is research that points to this being a distinct possibility.
But it’s not just about autistic kids. It’s about all of us — kids and adults alike.
Touch for Infants, and Children
Institutionalized children suffer from delays in cognitive development and physical growth. That’s not news to anyone. But perhaps the issue isn’t lack of maternal care per se, but rather lack of sensory stimulation? Just ten minutes a day significantly increases these children’s’ chance at survival and health.
Infants and children need to be touched in order to grow and develop. Premature infants benefit from “kangaroo care” — being put skin-to-skin against their parent’s chest. And in the mother’s absence, touch reduces the cortisol levels in worried infants.
Even though most of the research concentrates on preemies and adults, a new study shows (not surprisingly) that when preschool children are touched on the back or shoulder, they are more compliant and exhibit better delayed gratification skills.
For grade-school students, a teacher’s touch increases classroom participation, attentiveness, and overall performance. American kids are more aggressive than their French peers. They’re also touched less. Coincidence? It could be, but research would suggest not.
Contrary to popular thought, mothers don’t have stronger physiological or hormonal connection to their infants, than fathers do. Nonapeptide oxytocin (OT) is the hormone that aids bonding of parent-child pairs in mammals. When researchers checked the post-birth hormone levels of first-time mothers and fathers, they found that the maternal and paternal levels were interrelated. (It is true, however, that the hormone levels in mothers and fathers were stimulated by different things.)
And while it’s well-known that mothers can easily recognize their infants based on smell alone, it’s less well known that fathers recognize their infants based on touch. Want to know something else? Infants release pheromones causing those who hold them and coddle them — to forge a strong bond. You know the “new baby” smell? It’s pheromones. Not Johnson’s shampoo.
Touch for Adults
You’ve probably heard of some of the positive effects of touch: They include decreased blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels, as well as increased oxytocin (the “love hormone”) levels. In other words — surprise, surprise — touch relaxes you and lowers stress. In fact, moderate pressure massage increases attentiveness and immune system efficiency, and decreases depression.
People bond through touch.
Think about it. Negative touch, such as abuse, causes a whole boatload of emotional damage. Most of what we know about touch, we’ve learned by watching those who were touch-deprived. And the influence of touch on social and emotional development is clear.
Intimacy is touch, in one of its most basic forms. IVF, or conception sans touch, is still spanking-new, and if IVF were the only way to reproduce, humanity would have died out long ago. But what happens when intimacy is abused? Cases of martial rape, “regular” rape, child molestation, and so forth? All of these are examples of abusive touch. And all of them are incredibly damaging to the victim. For that matter, so are slaps, bites, and other forms of negative interpersonal touch.
No-Touch Policies: Helpful or Harmful?
At its core, a no-touch policy assumes that the toucher is liable to sexually harass the touch-ee. I mean, we’re not worried about the soccer coach giving the student a black eye, are we? No. We’re worried that the soccer coach might molest the child. But no-touch policies don’t actually prevent abuse. Instead, they give our kids that message that all touch is bad. And unfortunately, that kind of message can lead to touch starvation.
People who are starving for touch will take — or give — any touch, positive or negative. Because touch is an essential biological need. A person who has nothing to eat will steal food. And a person who has no one to touch him, will “steal” touch. He’ll steal the best, most powerful touch he can get — even if doing so severely harms himself or the other person.
Touch is like magic. Used properly, it works miracles. Used improperly, it causes an enormous amount of hard-to-fix damage.
The bottom line is that touch is an incredibly effective form of communication. Touch is the best way to comfort someone. And it integrates well with other forms of communication, such as facial expressions or verbal cues.
A glance, a verbal response, and a shoulder shrug – even a text message or a letter — can all be misinterpreted. But if you’re close enough – physically and emotionally — to touch someone, it may be the most effective way to communicate: research shows that touch accurately communicates emotions about 78% of the time.
Our society isn’t perfect, and abusive touch has to be stopped. But preventing abuse shouldn’t come at the expense of our children’s physical and emotional health – or our own. So go home tonight and make sure your kids get five hugs each. Make sure they know it’s okay to ask for a hug if they’re sad. And show them that you know how important touch is, too.
What do you think? Does touch come easily to you, or is it more difficult? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Voos, A. C., Pelphrey, K. A., & Kaiser, M. D. (2012). Autistic traits are associated with diminished neural response to affective touch. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(4), 378-386. doi:10.1093/scan/nss009
Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review. Developmental Review, 30(4), 367-383. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2011.01.001
Gordon, I., Zagoory-Sharon, O., Leckman, J. F., & Feldman, R. (2010). Oxytocin and the Development of Parenting in Humans. Biological Psychiatry, 68(4), 377-382. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.02.005
Blackwell, P. L. (2000). The Influence of Touch on Child Development. Infants & Young Children, 13(1), 25-39. doi:10.1097/00001163-200013010-00006
Field, T. (1999). Preschoolers in America are Touched Less and are More Aggressive Than Preschoolers in France. Early Child Development and Care, 151(1), 11-17. doi:10.1080/0300443991510102
Feldman, R., Singer, M., & Zagoory, O. (2010). Touch attenuates infants’ physiological reactivity to stress. Developmental Science, 13(2), 271-278. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00890.x
Lewis, C., & Lamb, M. E. (2003). Fathers’ influences on children’s development: The evidence from two-parent families. European Journal of Psychology of Education Eur J Psychol Educ, 18(2), 211-228. doi:10.1007/bf03173485
Research into our sense of touch leads to new treatments for autism – Science in the News. (2016). Retrieved from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2016/research-into-our-sense-of-touch-leads-to-new-treatments-for-autism/
Ardiel, E. L., & Rankin, C. H. (2010). The importance of touch in development. Paediatrics & Child Health, 15(3), 153–156.
The Power of Touch. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201303/the-power-touch
Leonard, J. A., Berkowitz, T., & Shusterman, A. (2014). The effect of friendly touch on delay-of-gratification in preschool children. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 67(11), 2123-2133. doi:10.1080/17470218.2014.907325
Hands On Research: The Science of Touch. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research