In a November 2005 edition of The Straits Times, a leading Singapore daily broadsheet, there is a report on Singapore scientists’ ongoing efforts to find a way to transmit “cyber hugs.”
In the report, Adrian David Cheok, Nanyang Technological University Interaction and Entertainment Research Centre director, says, “The team is thinking of a wireless pajama suit for children, which would use the Internet to adjust pressure and temperature to simulate the feeling of being hugged. Parents in a similar suit could be ‘hugged back’ by their children.”
You may be wondering why science is showing keen interest in such an everyday gesture. Indeed, while you’ve relied on it as a natural painkiller after your little one has scraped his knee, hugging unwittingly has many other positive side effects.
Various studies have shown the close association between, on the one hand, the positive emotions derived from this simple act of affection, and, on the other, overall well-being. Hugging and close physical contact have been advocated by countless child experts as an invaluable element in child development.
Hugs Build a Child’s Life Skills
Letitia Ho, Ph.D., a developmental pediatrician holding clinic in Quezon City, relates, “I can usually tell which among my child patients are children of ‘touch’ parents. They grow up to be very expressive and warm. I’ve observed that children who aren’t hugged very often, or aren’t shown affection by their family, usually grow up putting a distance between themselves and other people. There is a certain coldness about them as kids that gets carried on into adulthood.”
Ho stresses that hugging fortifies a child’s self-esteem. “Hugging is a gesture of affirmation, appreciation, and acknowledgment,” she says. “A child who is hugged often acquires a positive self-concept, whereas a child who is hug-starved or doesn’t receive any other form of affirmation at home will start asking ‘Am I loved here?’”
Ho even infers that the indispensability of hugging and physical contact in a child’s development can be attributed to as early as the child’s fetal days, when the warmth and snugness of the womb simulates the feeling of being hugged. “The skin of the baby is exposed to warm amniotic fluid the whole time. It’s very tactile,” she adds.
Children in hugging households are equipped with the emotional skills that facilitate healthy interpersonal relationships. In fact, hugging and other forms of touch therapy are employed by child experts to help abused children recuperate from emotional trauma.
“Touch therapy is used a lot, especially with children who have been sexually abused,” Ho shares. “It is used with great caution and at a pace the child is comfortable with because, of course, due to their ordeal, these children grow to be touch-offensive.”
Hug therapy, if successful in these cases, helps restore a child’s ability to cope, to trust in people again, and to emotionally express himself or herself—factors necessary in forging healthy intimate relationships as an adult.
Hugs Build A Culture Of Peace
There are differences between “hugging” countries and “hands-off” countries. Ho does an informal observation of the difference, for instance, in the collective social temperament between Americans and Filipinos.
“In the early part of child development,” she notes, “American babies are put in nurseries separate from their parents’ rooms. For Filipinos, that’s not widely practiced, maybe more because of economical reasons.
“One thing, compared to Americans, average Filipino houses don’t have that many rooms. Filipino babies sleep in the same bed as the parents, or are put in a crib next to the parents’ bed. I think this contributes to Filipinos being bigger on touch than Americans, [and Filipinos] being more expressive and generally warm.”
In a broader context, hugging has been found to affect cultural predispositions towards aggressive behavior. That is, this is said to be why some cultures are more violent than others.
Such is the contention of a survey of 49 primitive cultures conducted by developmental psychologist James W. Prescott, who was health scientist administrator from 1966 to 1980 of the National Institute of Child Health, an agency under the United States’ National Institute of Health.
According to Prescott’s study (published in a November 1975 article, “Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence”), the difference between violent and peaceful societies can be found in how widely these societies practiced physical affection. Societies that subscribed to a “hands-off” subculture as early as childhood often yielded “brutal” adults.
Hugs Keep You Healthy!
That hugs are a natural analgesic, says Ho, is based on physiology and not just the general sense of comfort one feels while being hugged. “The skin is very sensitive. Physical discomfort, like pain, is eased when touched,” Ho says. “A child crying because of a scraped knee is soothed when he is hugged by his mother.”
Soothing tactile touch stimulates nerve endings, explaining the wide use of “touch therapy” for people suffering from chronic body pain and other illnesses.
Studies of the New York University (NYU) nursing department have shown touch to effect healing—such as increasing hemoglobin levels in the blood, which aids in the rapid delivery of blood to the tissues.
In another NYU study, pet ownership was cited as therapeutic for patients with heart problems, indicating that the soothing effect from cuddling pets reduced stress levels in heart-attack victims.
In a University of North Carolina study (published in the health journal Psychosomatic Medicine, August 2005), the effects of hugging were observed in 38 couples.
The study showed that hugs increased the release of oxytocin—known as the “bonding hormone” or the “cuddle chemical”—and reduced blood pressure by lowering levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone.
All this only shows that rare is the person who doesn’t gain an ounce of healing after a good bear hug.
Carefully mix hugging with disciplinary action
Parents may confuse the child when they hug the child immediately after imposing disciplinary action. Letitia Ho, a professor at the UP Diliman College of Education, says that hugging must be an act of affirmation without contradicting the point of punishment. Therefore, after a misdeed, it is important for parent and child to settle the disciplinary action first, and to carry the punishment out to full term.
“Discipline situations shouldn’t go unprocessed,” Ho says. “After the punishment has been carried out, explain what the alternative behavior should have been, and then hug after a certain grace period. That is when hugging becomes a palliative—where the deed, not the person, is what’s being punished.”
Hugging brings with it a windfall of positive emotions. Studies have shown that what was once seen as a simple act is in fact closely associated with overall well-being.