Physical Touch Develops Empathy in Children
Look at any animal in the world. They all like to bond with the others of their species, which is why we see so many images of animals hugging and snuggling with their young. The role of physical bonding in the development of any relationship cannot be emphasized enough. This is true in case of human parenting too. Children who engage with parents through physical touch – hugging, touching, loads of cuddling – develop into empathetic adults, experts say.
Why Is Physical Touch So Important?
In early days when we didn’t have access to everything we do today, and significantly smaller brains to boot, the only way for us to recognize another of the same species was by using our senses. Even today, rodents identify each other by their sense of smell. The use of sense mandates being in close proximity to the other.
As the portion of the brain called the neocortex developed in apes and human, our relationships and desires began to become more complex, still fueled by senses but with the additional layer of associated touch. Even hormones such as ‘oxytocin’, responsible for the ‘feel good’ factor show an increased presence in blood during physical engagement and are found to be higher in new mothers and in parents holding their infants.
This is why doctor’s and healthcare providers talk so much about physical touch and the need for hugging a child. Indeed, the whole idea of kangaroo care in humans has evolved from this very simple act of love.
How Often Can We Do It?
This is debatable, and entirely up to you, really. While several memes and WhatsApp forwards claim that nine times a day is a good number, or that we must hug before and after school, etc. this is mere speculation.
What’s an ideal number in my opinion?
As many times as you can! If your child is around and they come to you seeking attention, be sure to add in a hug here and a cuddle there.
Children in institutional care have consistently exhibited delayed developmental capabilities and minimal social function according to several studies. This too has been attributed to the hampered development of the neocortex, due to insufficient stimulus in the form of physical contact.
How are Physical Touch and Empathy Connected?
The very title of this article talks about the role of physical touch in developing empathy. What is the link between the two?
It is pretty straightforward actually.
Outward displays of affection are often considered rude and even taboo in this part of the world. However, displaying your love through actions and words makes children mimic that behavior often inadvertently in a social setting. Children who know that they are loved unconditionally, reinforced by constant touch are more comfortable with the idea of giving and receiving love.
When your child is sad, you go up to them and offer to console them, making them feel better. You chat with them, distract them, say good things and plant a few kisses on their little heads or just give them a hug. The next time they see someone sad or dejected, they’re likely to know that this is accepted action and will reciprocate accordingly. Over time, this develops into the ability to tune into other people’s emotions, respond and react to change of moods in others and empathize with them.
What’s more, physical touch doesn’t have to be limited to parent-child bonding alone. Seeing mom and dad hug each other after a long day, a few pats from the class teacher and holding hands with friends are all ways by which children can be shown how good it feels to connect. It is watching this over several days, that children naturally extend their love and care to others, whether another human or even an animal.
As parents, we do a lot of cuddling quite subconsciously. There’s a way to make the interaction even better. The next time you hug your child, tell them how much they mean to you. Tell them you love them, irrespective of how grown-up they might seem to be. Show them with actions rather than words.