It may come as a surprise to many well-meaning mothers that their own children are suffering from "lack of touch." We educated, involved parents have come to associate unhappy children with those who are neglected, abused, chronically ill, or living in dysfunctional homes. However, the fact is that many children who come from good solid homes are not physically comforted, loved, nurtured, and cuddled enough.
This is because the parents themselves did not receive enough loving contact. They may not know how to cuddle, coo, kiss, and hug their children affectionately. Some mothers are unaware of how detrimental it is to habitually prop a bottle for their child to suck from rather than hold him in their arms to feed. Feeding does not just fulfill the basic need of appeasing a child's hunger; the child also needs the opportunity for close contact with the parent.
Finally, some children need more physical affection than a parent's innate personality or schedule allows. These children often fall into the category of "failure to thrive." Either at home or in school, they feel and look sad. Their expressions are blank, devoid of emotion, and their movements are limp and lethargic.
Another sign of needing to be touched is acting out by misbehaving to the point of rebellion. One 10-year-old who already had a police record confided, "I'm bad and bad until Daddy finally hits me." What the child was articulating was that a negative touch is better than no touch at all, much as a moldy piece of bread is more desirable to a starving person than no food at all.
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Infants need to be held, touched, cooed, and kissed. Toddlers need tons of hugs and kisses. The best way to patch up a toddler's bruises is a kiss from Mom. When parents convey their love by being available for kisses and hugs anytime, it encourages healthy separation between mother and child.
Preschoolers need to be held in the lap, cuddled, hugged, and touched at every opportunity. A first-grader usually needs fewer hugs, but he needs them nevertheless. A mother's pat on the head, a father's holding his hand as they walk to school, all gives strong messages of love.
Teenagers usually claim they don't need hugs or pats. Don't believe them.
A 10-year-old is more difficult to hug and cuddle. Yet he, too, needs positive physical touch. When handing him an item such as an apple or book, linger an extra second to touch his hand, tousle his head. Ask permission for a hug or to be hugged.
Teenagers usually claim they don't need hugs or pats. It makes them feel babyish and silly. Don't believe them. Just be patient. Look for opportunities such as birthdays, holidays, milestones, and goodbyes for a warm hug.
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The tender touch of a loved one is so immensely comforting and nurturing. It is priceless. There is no one richer than a person who can openly and appropriately display physical affection to the loved ones in his life. There is no one poorer than someone who wants to love, needs to express his love, craves love from his family, but does not know how to give or receive affection in a healthy physical manner.
The need for touch doesn't end with adulthood. It merely branches into different forms. What was once a mother's warm hug transforms into a healthy intimacy between husband and wife. What was once a father's affectionate caress transforms into an adult's healthy solid handshakes or hugs to colleagues, close friends, and siblings. Grandparents can share and thrive on the give-and-take of touch and hugs from grandchildren and their married children.
Don't think that once you're married your parents don't need your touch. They do, probably more than ever. Don't think you don't need their touch. You do, unless you are filled with unresolved childhood resentments. Touching a parent or a child should never stop regardless of age or gender. The elderly, especially those in nursing homes, probably need a warm hug or caress more than the hot food on their trays.
America, one of the richest countries in the world, is touch-starved! Our busy schedules, secondary jobs outside the home, large families, and huge responsibilities keep us on an emotional and physical marathon. Who has time to stop and think? We are glad if we make it through the day without hitting or screaming at our children. As for a hug, the child has to be sick with a high fever to get one. Otherwise, we are just too busy.
Our Western society has also made many forms of physical contact taboo. In warmer cultures, such as among North African or Sefardi Jews, no one is greeted without a kiss on both cheeks; men hug men and women hug women without hesitation or embarrassment.
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Yael, a child of six, was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, separation anxiety, school phobia, and inability to integrate classroom material. An additional diagnosis of learning disabled soon appeared on her chart. To make matters worse, Yael had uncontrollable screaming tantrums that got worse each month.
Three different doctors advised her parents to ignore the child's tantrums. Friends told them, "Whenever you leave the house with Yael, takes loads of nosh along." Grandmother said Yael's mother had been the same way as a child. It was a personality problem.
During therapy, Yael was obsessed with bottle-feeding the dolls I keep in the office for the entire duration of the session. In the waiting room, where I went to get her, I found her with her thumb in her mouth huddled into a fetal position on one side of the bench, while her mother sat on the other side. The source of Yael's problems became immediately clear, and I began to instruct her mother on the art of "holding therapy."
When Yael was about to go into a tantrum, her mother was taught to hold and cuddle her until she calmed down. When Yael was put to bed, her mother or father would hold her for 10 to 15 minutes, and upon awakening in the morning, they did another round of holding therapy. With proper instruction, Yael's parents became the most successful therapists in the world.
Not surprisingly, within a very short time Yael's behavior became more subdued. She had fewer tantrums, and when she did have them, they were aborted by her mother or father picking her up and soothing her for 15 minutes. Yael gradually became a more likable child in school and at home. Her concentration increased, and she was able to absorb more classroom material...
The more a child receives healthy physical love, the more he will love the world and himself.
If we want children to become happy, functioning adults, they must have first received a heaping helping of healthy touch from parents, friends, and grandparents. In addition, parents should be alert to signs of intrusive or abusive touch that can maim a child's personality quicker than a fire burns down a house. At no time is it all right for a child to be touched in private places. If a child complains that someone has done so, do not deny it and claim he is making it up. Believe your child. Children can make up stories about almost anything, but I have never yet seen a child make up stories about being touched intrusively in a private area of the body.
As the evidence shows, loving your child with your whole heart is not enough. A parent must know or learn how to demonstrate physical love, bearing in mind the age and stage of the child. Of course, at no point is it productive to force physical affection on anyone, nor should parents tickle a child for more than a brief second or two. Simply offer age- and stage-appropriate physical touch and be available to receive it back when your children are ready. The more a child receives healthy physical love, the more he will love the world and himself.
Reprinted with permission from "LOVE IS NOT ENOUGH" by Rachel Schmidt, R.C.S.W. Published by: Targum Press, Inc.