Physical affection and touch: How much kids need and how to give them enough amid COVID

Nov. 3, 2020

Love and affection. Every kid needs them. But since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we’re all living six feet apart. Hugging or even touching are among the very last things parents want their kids to do with anyone outside their family or caregiver pod. 

“Children everywhere are losing out on this type of connection,” says Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0-2.” “Not only does this interfere with their physical functioning, but it also impacts their social and emotional growth and functioning when it comes to learning about others, society and their relationship to both.”

Just how much is not touching other people affecting our kids? And what can parents and caregivers do about it? Here’s what the experts have to say about the physical affection and physical touch that many kids are missing during this pandemic. 

Why do kids need physical touch?

Think about getting a hug from someone you cherish. Does it put you at ease and make you feel loved? That’s because touch is grounding and comforting, says Brad Reedy, therapist and clinical director at Evoke Therapy Programs

“The need for touch is neurologically and sociobiologically based,” Reedy explains. “Humans (and primates) derive great comfort and peace from touch, and close contact is inextricably linked with their early attachment experiences. Human beings are not particularly independent and resilient in infancy and childhood; therefore, we rely on other humans for sustenance and safety," says Reedy. "Touch suggests that someone is near that we can rely on for safety.”

For kids, touch also helps them learn appropriate behavior and how to navigate social relationships. 

For example, Cook says, “A high-five, side bump, pat on the back, hip check, hair tussle, as well as a slap, bite or shove, are all key ways of communicating whether someone likes/dislikes us, our behaviors and our actions.”

Touch acts as a non-verbal cue for kids, according to Cook, teaching them boundaries and mood states of the people around them. It can even dictate a child’s emotional behavior. If a child bites a friend and said friend stops interacting with them, for example, it helps a child process consequences. 

“Do they continue to bite other people and lose out on playmates, or do they stop this ‘touch’ and find better ways to connect?” Cook notes. 

Can kids be starved for physical affection? 

OK, so touch is good for kids. But is it really that important? According to scientists, yes. 

In one of the best-known studies on touch and the maternal/child bond, a researcher named Harry Harlow conducted an experiment with baby monkeys, isolating them in cages with fake “moms.” One “mom” was covered in terry cloth to make her soft to touch while another held the baby monkey’s milk and bottle but was made of cold metal wires. The result? When frightened, the baby monkeys would cling to the soft terry cloth surrogate even suffering dehydration because she could not provide any sustenance. 

“The results of this study indicated that giving food and shelter was not enough for a baby to survive and thrive but rather they needed comforting physical touch,” Cook explains. “  

And while there was no official experimentation going on, Cook says researchers who went into overcrowded orphanages in Romania in the 1990s found children who were mute, socially withdrawn and had blank looks in their eyes and bizarre movements. In extreme situations, some of the babies in the orphanages even died — from causes later attributed to a lack of touch. 

“What they realized was that while the children’s food and shelter needs were being met, they were not being touched enough,” Cook explains. 

How is COVID getting in the way of what kids need? 

Fortunately, most kids living through the pandemic are not in living situations like those in a crowded 1990s Eastern European orphanage. But lack of touch from playmates, teachers and even grandparents and relatives outside the family’s immediate pod is nevertheless having a very real effect on kids

“When a student cries, I am unable to console them, and it kills me,” says Claire S., a first grade teacher in upstate New York. “I am unable to have students come to the smart board to touch the screen, and I feel that they are missing out on so much interaction. I have lain awake at night wondering if I am doing the best that I can do and in what ways can I make this the best possible experience for them.”  

Before the pandemic, each of Claire’s students got some sort of physical greeting to welcome them to class each day, be it a high-five, a fist bump, or for some kids, a hug. Those interactions are gone for teachers and for kids, as is much of the feeling of community that came with typical touching and sharing. 

“We celebrate sharing in my classroom,” Claire explains, “with communal classroom supplies, snacks, recess activities and a class library of books to share. Students did touch each other in class community-building activities, like by holding hands in a circle or sitting knee-to-knee on the class carpet. Weekly, we have a class called SEW, or social emotional wellness, with varying team-building activities. This includes sitting in a circle and passing the ‘talking stick,’ which we are now unable to do, holding hands, etc.”

With the need to keep kids six feet apart at all times, the ability to let students build their emotional and social skill sets in the classroom has been hampered, Claire says. 

Louann Redard is the mom of a first grader who’s struggling with just that. Daughter Kenley is learning remotely this year in a tiny pod of two 6-year-olds led by a retired teacher hired by their parents. 

Before the pandemic, Redard says her daughter was a chatty, happy social butterfly. But in the months since COVID hit the U.S., the little girl known for hugging everyone she meets has become shy and started to hide behind her parents when encountering people — even people she knows well. 

“[Recently] we ran into a local woman, and Kenley wouldn’t say hi, buried her face into me and was gripping me tightly, shaking and crying,” Redard says. “She finally came around, but it was clearly emotionally taxing for her.”

“I do feel lucky that I don’t have to send her to school,” Redard continues, “but it’s also hard to find ways to safely socialize. And she is sad she can’t hug her friends … I do fear that this decision could affect Kenley in an emotional way long term. It’s a battle that every parent I talk to has.”

What signs to watch for in children

Social regression is a common sign that kids are missing out on both the love and social development that comes with touch, Cook says. 

If you’re worried that spending all their time six feet from their friends and family is having an impact, Cook suggests looking out for the following:

  • Increased agitation or aggression: For Hastings-on-Hudson, New York mom Tiffany Hagler-Geard, this was a big sign that son Charlie was struggling. The happy-go-lucky 3.5-year-old has become agitated when he sees people walking on the sidewalk, yelling “Oh no! People! Run!” 

  • Trouble unwinding or calming down: Have you noticed a marked increase in the time it takes the child to recover from upsets? Or maybe old coping strategies (deep breathing) are no longer working? Those are common signs, Cook says. 

  • Depression, melancholy or even just the blues: “These are different degrees of sadness all associated with unfulfilled needs,” Cook notes. “The age of your child will determine how they ‘act out.’ Younger children tend to act out aggressively when depressed. Older children may withdraw but also tend to show increased signs of anger/disobedience.”

  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns: Because of COVID, children feel even less in control of their lives, Cook says. “By refusing sleep or food they are trying to gain a sense of control and empowerment,” she explains, “but it comes at the cost of decreased mental focus and ability to self-regulate.” 

Reedy cautions it may be tough for parents to notice these changes in your own kids — especially with more and more families spending all their time together. He notes, “While parents may love their children the most, they are often not the most effective in evaluating their child’s mental states.”

For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep an open communication with your child's teacher or regular caregiver about these signs and the child’s changing behaviors and moods. 

How to help and support kids right now 

One important thing to do? Check your own anxiety at the door. If you’re struggling through the pandemic, it’s understandable, but be careful not to project your own feelings onto children. It’s important that adults struggling with mental health issues get help so they don’t miss cues from children because they’re unable to be objective. 

So what can you do? Here’s what the experts suggest:

  • Check in with your own mental health first. If you need help, get it. Kids need healthy parents and caregivers.

  • Have sensory fun. Cook says projects with younger kids can go a long way toward filling their sensory needs. Her suggestions? “Buy paint brushes (different types of bristles, etc.) and ‘paint’ your child's arms/legs/tummy with the brushes, asking them to describe the feeling that they get from each brush.” Another idea? “Fill bowls with different textures (shaving cream, rice, beans, cold spaghetti, peeled grapes, etc.). Have your child explore the bowls describing the sensations that they are experiencing.” These are also activities that, according to Cook, stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the nerve that sends out a rush of feel-good hormones when you feel positive touch. 

  • Create a fun way for kids to greet people in their pod, such as a fun handshake, hip bump, etc. “Sometimes it's hard for kids to ask for cuddles, so creating a special shake might help cut through the emotional red tape,” Cook says. Bonus? The laughter that comes from completing that complicated handshake between you and your child could be welcome stress relief for both of you. 

  • Don’t focus solely on bad behavior. Acting out may be a sign of trauma, but it’s not the cause. “This focus on behavior can lead to sublimation, resulting in symptoms showing up in other areas of life,” Reedy says. “Like cutting a weed off at the surface and seeing it pop up somewhere else in the garden.” Instead, focus on being as present as you can with your kids. “The healing balm for the child is often listening, understanding, attunement and even touch,” Reedy explains. “These responses from the parent provide the child with a sense of well-being and safety.”

  • Talk about what’s going on in the world. It’s tempting to hide scary things away from kids, but it can make it all the more scary, Cook says. “When children are informed, they feel more in control,” she says. “Let your child know that the lack of playdates and parties has nothing to do with them but the larger world in general.”

  • Adopt a petIt may not won’t work for every family, but studies have shown the positive impact of petting a dog or cat and “the comfort this brings to a weary soul,” Cook says. Studies have even shown that petting animals can help decrease heart rate and reduce blood pressure.

  • Offer extra hugs and cuddles. This can be tough for adults who are feeling especially on edge during the pandemic. “Even hugging may be difficult some days when you have no internal resources left,” Cook says. That doesn’t make you a bad parent or caregiver. It makes you human. If you don’t have the wherewithal for a big squishy hug, try incorporating more back pats or shoulder squeezes as you pass them by.

When to seek professional help

Cook says parents need to keep in mind that changes are natural — we are all learning to live in a pandemic after all. However, here are some signs and behaviors from your child that might warrant a call to their pediatrician, according to Cook:

  • Shifts in mood states that last over two weeks and interfere with their ability to complete daily activities.

  • Appetite shifts that suddenly cause significant weight loss or gain.

  • Neglect of personal hygiene rituals or the addition of intricate and/or obsessive new grooming behaviors.

  • Significant shifts (more or less) in sleeping patterns that interfere with their ability to function within normal activities.

  • Any self-harming behaviors. 

  • Any mentions, even casual ones, of killing themselves or saying things like, “the world would be better off without me.”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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