The Power of Touch in Parenting

Too often we underestimate the power of touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
—Leo Buscaglia, American author

With infants and toddlers, touch is an everyday part of life, but as children grow older, many of them don’t want to be touched. Yet, researcher Tiffany Field has found that touch has a powerful effect on how kids grow. The more they’re touched in positive, appropriate ways, the more they thrive. Here’s how to add the power of touch to parenting kids of all ages.

Tips for . . .

  • all parents
    • Think of touch as another way to communicate with your child. Whenever you pat your child on the shoulder, snuggle up to read with him, or hug him, you’re telling your child that you love him.
    • Examine your comfort with touch. Some people enjoy more touch than others, and some have been wounded by inappropriate touch. Know yourself so that your issues of touch don’t get passed along to your kids.
    • Talk with your children and family about how touch has changed over previous generations. Some generations have maintained that “touch” was equal to “spoiling,” which resulted in very little touch. Some people have been more reticent to touch others because of all the news and litigation of inappropriate touch. Yet, kids need parents who touch them in supportive, loving, appropriate ways.
    • Find out how your child likes to be touched. Some enjoy playful touch, such as pillow fights and gentle wrestling. Others like hugs. Everyone is different, and kids often have their views of touch change as they grow older. For concrete ideas through the childhood years, read How to Speak Love Language #1: Physical Touch.
    • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Frequently hold your infants and toddlers. Rock them. Cuddle with them. Pick them up when they cry. Let them sit in your lap when they want to. Positive touch is essential for raising young children well. The asset-building book What Young Children Need to Succeed includes lots of ideas on how to touch kids in positive ways from birth to age 11.
    • Play games that involve touch, such as having your child ride you like a horse. Blow raspberries onto your child’s tummy (as long as your child enjoys this). Tickle each other (again, as long as your child likes it). Play with your infant’s hands and feet. Continue to play in these ways as long as your child smiles, giggles, and enjoys it.
    • Make reading a part of your everyday routine. When you read to your child, have your child sit in your lap, or snuggle up close together.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • At this age, some children pull away from hugs and other types of touch. Look for touch that they like. For example, some kids enjoy sandwich hugs where you sandwich a family member in between two other family members and squeeze. Others enjoy arm wrestling.
    • As your child learns to read, sit very close to him. This often works best in a soft couch, oversized chair, or bed. Some kids may still enjoy sitting in your lap during reading times, but other kids may just like to be close to you.
    • Play games that involve touch, such as tag; duck, duck, goose; and three-legged races.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • It’s often typical that kids at this age don’t want their parents anywhere near them (let alone touching them). Honor their needs for space, but don’t check out of their lives. Pat their shoulders when you say you’re proud of them, or help them style their hair for fun events such as homecoming or prom.
    • If you coach or lead a club for kids at this age, make high-fives a regular part of your routine. For example, start out and end each session with high-fives.
    • Help your kids find activities that include appropriate touch, such as soccer, basketball, marital arts, and other sports. They may not want to hug you anymore, but they’re often open to others touching them. That’s why you might see a couple of kids suddenly start to wrestle or a couple of girls doing each other’s hair or makeup.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Teens at this age may still want their distance from their parents, but, for example, a boy might not mind if his dad lightly punches him on the arm, or a girl might let her mom hug her.
    • When your teenager is stressed, offer to rub his shoulders. Most kids enjoy shoulder massages, and it can be a good opportunity for you to catch up and talk. (Note: You don’t need to know how to do a proper massage. Just rubbing your teen’s shoulders and lightly kneading her muscles is all you need to do.)
  • Model appropriate touch with other family members who are open to it. If you have a partner, hold hands or hug in front of your kids (without making it a big display). The way you model touch also makes a big impact on kids.

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