Συμβουλές Ψυχολογίας

Twelve Hugs a Day: The Power of Embrace

Τhe first sense of touch occurs in the womb, and then it becomes a vital experience of life contributing to the brain of the child. The role of touch in the development of attachment is essential. 

Τouch is the first sense to form. It begins to develop around 8 weeks gestation. Later, the baby’s body develops the network of nerves that make up the sense of touch. Even while in the womb, a baby can feel things. By 32 weeks gestation, nearly every part of the baby’s body can feel heat, cold, pressure, and pain. At birth, the sense of touch is the most finely tuned of all the senses. Inside the womb, the baby has the ability to touch by resting its’ hands on the walls of the amniotic sac, swimming in the amniotic fluid, playing with the umbilical cord or its legs. After birth, the baby seeks warmth in the arms of his parents.

It is important to mention that children begin to recognize themselves as they gain a sense of the self as an object. The realization that one’s body, mind and activities are distinct from those of other people is known as self-awareness.

The baby acquires a sense of self through the bodily responses of his environment, initially of his mother who will hug him, will satisfy his needs for food, etc.  This way, he realizes that he is distinct from her.

Indeed, the importance and benefits of hugging are boundless as it does contribute to a child’s cognitive and emotional development, and parents should not worry about hugging their child excessively.

Research has shown that children thrive in environments where they are showered with love, enjoy a gentle touch or massage on their forehead or back, a tight hug as they grow older, a tap on the shoulder as a reward or encouragement.

Hug and health

When we experience hugging, oxytocin is secreted in the brain. Oxytocin is a chemical in our bodies that scientists sometimes call the “cuddle hormone.” This is because its’ levels rise when we hug, touch, or sit close to someone else. Oxytocin is associated with happiness and less stress.

Studies have also shown that when we hug, the heart rate is regulated, blood pressure and cortisol levels stabilize, dopamine and serotine are produced.

Hugging, self-esteem and social skills

Positive self-esteem starts with child’s attachment to parents. It begins as early as birth and continues as the child grows and develops. Children need to feel loved and accepted to build self-esteem. When a baby is hugged, he feels loved and valued. Also, hugging strengthens our relationships with the wider family as physical closeness enhances the ability of verbal/non-verbal communication with those around us.

However, what happens when the child avoids hugs? Does he have the freedom to choose whether to be hugged or not? Does he have freedom of choice?

Hugging and freedom

It’s incredibly important to note that hugs are good for kids. We shouldn’t limit this kind of physical affection. Hugs are known to decrease anxiety while promoting a deeper sense of well-being and safety.

What’s important here though, is that we put kids in control of hugging. It’s about giving them the power over consent. The reason why hugging is so good for us is because it’s such an intimate activity. Allowing your kid to control the level of intimacy is a more empowering way to strengthen their personality than giving them a firm handshake or wishing them good luck.

Similarly, there are parents who do not feel comfortable giving hugs, possibly because they grew up in families where hugging was experienced while playing, singing, being present and available.

We should listen to the child and his needs depending on his age and personality, we respect his limits and so he learns to delimit adult caresses, he learns to ask but also to say no, to respect first and foremost his own privacy.

According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from the bottom of it upwards, the needs are: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Virginia Satir, a psychologist concerned with the existential qualities of human relationships, would agree with him arguing that “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. And we need twelve hugs a day for growth.” 

Ms. Katerina Hotzoglou is a Clinical Psychologist MA - Child Psychologist MSc - Psychotherapist and Psychologist of Kessaris School.

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