Katie Crouch, Early Years Consultant
Hugs and cuddles can mean so many things: a greeting, a farewell, an act of love or affection or a reassuring embrace. Hugging and cuddling our children is one of life’s pleasures which can often diminish in occurrences as the child gets older. As humans, we can instinctively reach out to those who are hurt or distressed to give them a hug and an emotionally sensitive hug can be an important part of social bonding. Hugging can bring joy and a sense of calm to both people involved in the hug and, of course, it is extremely difficult to give a hug without receiving a hug in return.
The power of hugs and skin-to-skin contact are now favoured within maternity and neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). The act of cuddling and bonding with your baby just after birth can bring multiple health benefits both for the parents and for the child. In fact, babies who are cuddled skin-to-skin either by the mother, or father, post birth have been found to have a quicker rate of calming and regulation of post birth heart rates.
Physical connections such as hugging, can help to strengthen emotional bonds and attachments. For example, a child who is distressed will feel a sense of security from the person who provides them with physical reassurance. Another example might be if a child is upset after saying good bye to their parent, they may then seek reinforcement from their carer, whether it is their nanny, a nursery practitioner or perhaps a grandparent. The child may feel comfort by sharing an activity with their carer, holding their hand or perhaps having a hug or a cuddle.
When a child initiates a hug, on their terms and for their benefit, it is OK for a professional carer to hug back. This form of affection can be referred to as ‘professional love’, a term coined by Dr. Jools Page to enable professionals to show their affection and physical reassurance appropriately and safely to the children in their care. Children need emotional warmth and reassurance to enable them to feel, loved, treasured and to develop a sense of belonging. In turn this helps children to be able to build and maintain social relationships and personal wellbeing. A child who is cared for ‘at arm’s length’ may experience difficulty in developing self- regulation or empathy.
Self-regulation is an important life skill as it helps children to recognise and build strategies around the emotions they are feeling. If a child is on ‘high alert’ because they have experienced something which has upset them, they may need help to calm, to reduce their stress levels and heart rate. As seen with very young babies, an ideal way to do this is through cuddling or providing some other form of physical contact. When supporting a slightly older child, holding their hand or placing a hand gently on the child’s back between their shoulder blades can also reassure the child that you are there for them. However, it must be remembered that, due to a variety of reasons, some children can be touch adverse. In these cases ‘hand hugs’ can work well. This is a palm to palm contact, like a stationary ‘high five’, on the child’s terms and left available for as little, or as long, as the child needs it.
The concept of offering children ‘time in’ versus ‘time out’ can also use hugging as a behaviour management strategy. Often children can behave in a way that we would rather they didn’t, but the child may be behaving like this as a way of reaching out for communication and interaction. This is a case of ‘attention needing’ rather than ‘attention seeking’ behaviour and is not always a conscious choice for the child. Offering a hug to a child in distress can enable them to feel physically reassured, whilst they are learning to deal with the, sometimes confusing, emotions they are experiencing. Giving them a hug helps the child to still feel close to you, loved, secure and less stressed. Using the ‘time in’ technique also means that children can sense that you are being mindful of them rather than feeling isolated to a ‘time out’ space, for example. This closeness then facilitates the opportunity for you to have discussions about behaviour choices and problem solving together for future incidents. This can also support your child to calm physically and emotionally, at a quicker rate than if they were put into a ‘time out’ situation.
Of course hugging has to be on a child’s terms and in a way that feels safe and appropriate to them. It is OK to offer hugs, but the child’s feelings towards hugs needs to be respected. This can be particularly prevalent when using hugs as a greeting or goodbye, with family or friends. It is important that all children feel that they have a voice in relation to their bodies from a young age. Forcing a child to receive a hug from a relative or family friend can give them confusing and mixed messages. Some family members may also feel offended if a child refuses a hug, kiss or cuddle. Explaining to family and friends that hugs, kisses and cuddles are given through the child’s choice adds reinforcement that the child is not being rude by saying they don’t’ want to have a hug or a kiss. Another way to help in this situation is by you waving hello or goodbye to relatives first. The other adults will often follow your lead and this can help to avoid any tricky or difficult interactions.
Giving hugs can be mutually beneficial for all. By offering that safe space for a child you can help to empower them to develop physical and psychological confidence. Hugs can enable a child to feel loved, secure and comfortable. If your child offers you a hug, that is their way of communicating your importance to them. Accept it with open arms and a place in your heart but, most importantly, remember to hug back.