I missed out on hugs and cuddles. My mother, who was mentally ill, did not display affection. In second grade, I walked home from school with a friend. I remember watching as she ran up her front steps. Her mother would be waiting for her at the door with a smile. She’d open the door and wrap her arms around my friend.
I was jealous.
As explored in a previous post, young children need positive stimulation—back and forth interactions—from adults for healthy brain development. Further, prolonged exposure to adverse experiences can cause stress to become toxic as surges in stress hormones, such as cortisol, disrupt developing brain circuits. The body’s stress response system can get stuck in the on position. Overexposure to cortisol can result in an increased risk of physical and mental health problems later in life.
As it turns out, hugs, cuddles, and comforting words can help mitigate the effects of toxic stress for kids of all ages. As noted in the Newsweek article, “Yes, Stress Really Is Making You Sick,” the effects of childhood adversity “can be blunted by emotional ‘buffering’—a response from a loving, supportive caregiver that comforts the child, restores a sense of safety and allows cortisol levels to fall back down to normal. Some research suggests that this buffering works in part because a good hug—or even soft reassuring words from a caregiver—can cause the body to release the hormone oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the ‘cuddle ’or ‘love’ hormone.”
In fact, researchers have begun to explore whether oxytocin might form the basis for potent pharmaceutical interventions. https://www.newsweek.com/2020/…ou-sick-1489620.html
Some have gone so far as to call oxytocin an emerging ACEs antidote.
Researchers are now finding out that the positive effects of hugging are long-lasting. Children who are hugged tend to be happier adults. As reported by Health.com, a 2010 study conducted by researchers at Duke University Medical School, found that babies with very affectionate and attentive mothers are less likely than other babies to grow up to be emotionally distressed or anxious. The researchers posit that oxytocin may be the reason.
The study, which appeared in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, followed nearly 500 infants into their 30s. The mothers and babies were observed for just one day when the babies were 8 months old. Then the babies-turned-adults were interviewed about their levels of emotional distress some 30 years later. http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH…r.affection.anxiety/
A 2015 study from Notre Dame University replicates findings that providing children with affection promotes well-being in adulthood. In a Notre Dame News article, researcher Darcia Narvaez, University of Notre Dame professor of psychology, notes, “Humans evolved with a nest of care for their young that matches up with the maturation schedule of the child … We call it the evolved developmental niche.” The six components of the niche include soothing, naturalistic perinatal experiences; responsiveness to a baby’s needs including sensitivity to the signals of the baby before the baby cries; constant physical presence with plenty of affectionate touch; extensive breastfeeding; playful interactions with caregivers and friends; and a community of affectionate, mindful caregivers.
Many adults still struggle with the aftermath of childhood adversity—in particular, the trauma they experienced through emotional neglect. While research shows that children thrive when they receive hugs and interact with caring adults, we now know that the benefits of these early experiences extend into adulthood. We need to find ways to ensure kids get the emotional connections they need to grow up and become happy adults.
(This article is the second in a two-part series on the positive effects of hugging. It expands on the content in the resilience chapter of my book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. I assumed a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members. My book is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions.)
I am the author of Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. My book combines memoir with research. My credentials include contributing articles to a Philadelphia daily newspaper on psychological, medical, family, and career issues. I was also an editor at a daily newspaper in Atlantic City. I live near a small seaside town in New Jersey with my husband Jack and our rescue dog, Maxie.