Everyone needs a good hug every now and then — children especially. When we hug our children, according to Dr. Emily Mudd, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s, it actually helps them regulate their emotions and helps their brains develop.
“We know that even from the moment we’re born, that touch, physical touch, attention and hugs, are so very important for both nervous system regulation and brain development,” she says. “From the moment we’re born, we talk about kangaroo care and the importance of skin-to-skin contact and that really continues through childhood.”
Mudd says research has shown that when we receive a hug, our brains release oxytocin — which is the “feel good” brain chemical — and receiving a hug also can help children manage stress by calming the release of cortisol — which is the stress hormone.
When a child is having a meltdown or is overly stressed, Mudd says giving them a hug can help them calm down.
When kids receive warmth and affection from their parents at a very young age, research has shown they are more likely to have greater resilience, get better grades and have better parent-child relationships into adulthood.
But if your child isn’t a hugger or gets shy around family members, Mudd says don’t force them to give a hug.
“It’s okay to keep a very simple message, for whatever the age of the child is, that ‘you’re in control of your body, and if you don’t want to hug an aunt or an uncle at this gathering, that’s okay, but you can find another way to show them affection,’” she says. “Instead, you can share a special memory with them, give them a high-five or spend extra time with them — and be sure to explain this in advance to your relatives, too.”
Of course, hugs will change as your children get older, Mudd says, because teenagers don’t have the same physical attention needs as toddlers.
However, regardless of their age, letting your child know that you are there for them, unconditionally, is essential for their development and well-being.