Sign up for CNN’s Stress, But Less newsletter. Our six-part mindfulness guide will inform and inspire you to reduce stress while learning how to harness it.
There’s just something about a hug.
After a child has a hard day of feeling alone and stressed, it seems like a hug from someone they love could be just the cure.
It’s not just a feeling, experts say. Evidence shows it’s important to our well-being at every stage of life.
“Good contact helps soothe the nervous system and plays an important role in regulating emotions,” said Lisa Damour, an Ohio-based clinical psychologist specializing in the development of teenage girls.
In a time of abrupt changes and prolonged uncertainty, it could be argued that many children and adults need hugs now more than ever. The access to soothing physical affection, however, has been shrinking as people keep their distance from one another to keep safe from Covid-19.
“The challenge is that children, and then especially adolescents, get a lot of comfort from the physical contact with their peers,” said Damour, author of “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”
“Physical wrestling, bumping into each other, sitting close – that has not only been reduced by the pandemic because of our expectations of kids to keep a good distance, but it has also been policed.”
Damour added, “Rather than get relief, they get correction.”
Without as many playdates, sports and opportunities for community contact, many children could be getting the physical comfort they need from their immediate families, Damour said. But not every family has the same culture around hugs, and with so many things to worry about in this pandemic, families could be missing signs that their children need a little extra warmth and affection.
Bringing hugs into your home
When former educator Suzanne Barchers’ son was very young and would start to throw a tantrum, she would grab a book and pull him onto her lap to read. He might not have known exactly what he needed or had the words to say it, but the physical contact with his mother helped address his emotional needs.
“By four, he would stop when he was starting to go into a meltdown and say, ‘Mom, I think I need a book,’” said Barchers, an author of educational books for children and a member of the Educational Advisory Board at Lingokids.
A family’s culture around hugs as well as a child’s personal preferences can influence how best to bring more comfort into your home.
“Some children are more comfortable seeking affection. Other children are really looking for people to pick up on their cues and signals, like when they might be distressed or frustrated,” said Sheri Madigan, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of child development at the University of Calgary in Canada. “A really important ingredient in children feeling safety and security is actually just having people attend to those cues.”
One way to start and attune to your child’s cues is to ask questions.
“It is as simple as saying, to younger kids, ‘Do you want to cuddle?’ And make it clear that you will take no for an answer. No hard feelings,” Damour said. “For teenagers, especially if they are hurting, I think it is great to say, ‘Can I give you a hug?’”
But just as children differ in how they communicate their need for affection, they also can differ in what kind of affection they want – and the appropriate adults in their lives can still meet their emotional needs in creative ways.
It might be a little love note in their lunch box, cramming on the couch for a move or climbing into a blanket fort together, Barchers said.
Hugs should be for them, not others
One of the most important components of good, helpful physical affection is ensuring that it’s driven by the child – not just a hug because the parent or caregiver wants one, Damour said.
“It will have the opposite effect of what we would want for kids,” Damour said. “Rather than the physical affection being comforting and reassuring, it becomes anxiety-provoking.”
That is where reading a child’s cues comes in, Madigan said. If you can see your kid feeling stressed or upset, it may be time to build their emotional vocabulary and offer up affection rather than impose it.
“Getting eye to eye in terms of contact and just saying, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Is there anything I can do to help?’” Madigan said.
Empowering children’s bodily autonomy is important to make the hugs you give now effective and calming, but also to encourage their ability to alert inappropriate and unwanted affection for years to come, Barchers said.
“I think it’s a conversation that should be held in a comfortable setting, where a parent says, depending on the age of the child, ‘What do you feel comfortable with?’” Barchers said. “We don’t want to scare the children, but it is worth a conversation to say, ‘What is a good hug? What is a bad hug?’”
Respecting other people’s bodies
In teaching children that others should respect their bodies, opening up conversations about hugs can also help them navigate respect for those of their peers.
Before the pandemic, children might have run up to their friends on the school playground on a Monday and pulled their friend in for a hug. Some families may be getting more comfortable hugging those outside their households, but would-be huggers should be mindful that others may still be cautious or have higher-risk conditions.
And with masks used widely in many places, the facial expressions that before might have indicated that a hug is welcome aren’t so clear, Barchers said.
In place of visual cues, Barchers recommends parents and caregivers help their children develop verbal cues, normalizing asking if a hug is OK and offering verbal affection if it’s not.
While there are obstacles to physical affection as Covid-19 lingers, offering one another appropriate forms of comfort is crucial, the experts said, and adults can take a lead in making children feel safe and loved.