Do you remember the first time that you touched your child? Was it right after he was born? Or did you gently stroke her hand through an incubator as she recovered in the neonatal intensive-care unit after a difficult entry into our world? Maybe you exchanged smiles and touched hands at an orphanage and in that moment, you knew you that were meant for one another.
The warmth you feel from the right touch, from the right person, at the right time is comforting. Your touch and positive emotion grows interpersonal trust and serves as a powerful route to a deep connection with your child.
Since your birth, you’ve been immersed in a daily story about touch and its meanings. What positive “touch story” do you wish to pass on to your child and grandchildren?
Touch is a common experience that we humans share. However the particulars may look and feel different depending on your personality, culture of origin, your current environment and your family history.
The fact is, touch is a powerful nonverbal means of communication. Your first lessons about touch were from your primary caregivers, whether that was mom, dad, an extended family member, a guardian or a combination of these people. Without realizing it, your parents most likely passed down the touch habits and customs that they themselves experienced as children.
Some of these habits and customs may come from a particular community or ethnic culture. On the other hand, some touch habits may simply be a parent’s way of expressing their particular preference for communicating. For example, some people prefer to use words to express themselves more often than using body contact. Our personalities also play a role in how we choose to show affection to our children.
Whatever your background, you’re teaching the story of touch in your particular family – whether you’re conscious of it or not. Parents who are well-rested and comfortable with physical touch will probably give their children hugs and cuddles with ease. If a parent is overworked, tired and busy, a child is likely to miss out on frequent opportunities for hugs and cuddles. Likewise for children of parents who find hugs unappealing or uncomfortable. We often teach what we know (or what we are willing to learn) in our parenting.
Touch, Intention and Child Development
The potential positive power of the right kind of touch, at the right time, is massive and often with life long consequences. In particular, parent-child physical contact along with nurturing and positive emotional interaction is critical when the brain is undergoing rapid growth and change during infancy and early childhood.
Researcher Allan N. Shore writes about the neurobiological effect of touch and emotion on babies in the article Effects of a Secure Attachment Relationship on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation and Infant Mental Health (Infant Mental Health Journal, vol. 22, 2001). In the early years of life, much of learning is nonverbal. The primary social and emotional intentions of a parent’s touch during infancy are to convey love and to provide a sense of security for your child.
Shore states that implicit learning is “a major mechanism for the incorporation of cultural learning, a process that initiates in infancy.” He explains that a child’s development of social-emotional intelligence relies heavily on right brain function. It is generally understood that we need a secure attachment for optimal right brain function to emerge. In other words, regular experiences of positive emotion coupled with touch in infancy and early childhood can enhance your feelings of joy over your lifetime. Imagine that!
Touch and Cultural Creativity
Culture is created. You can take intentional and conscious action to create a culture of positive touch in your family. If the touch from a primary caregiver coupled with positive emotions is so important to child brain development in infancy and early childhood, then what are some ways to make touch more frequent and fun? Here are some of my thoughts to inspire your creative thinking:
- Make a physical routine out of your favourite moment to relax with your child (clapping song, tickle time, etc.)
- Take a class on infant massage and practice on your baby
- Invite your toddler to help you brush your hair and return the favour (if he or she lets you!)
- Try out a parent-child yoga class with your school-aged child to get attuned to your bodies
- Greet and part with an attentive hug for as long as your child is interested in this loving routine
In the wise words of William Martin in his book, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: A New Interpretation, he writes:
Don’t mistake your desire to talk for their readiness to listen.
Far more important are the wordless truths they learn from you.