The following describes accounts of child sexual and physical abuse, which the Innocent Lives Foundation works to prevent. This blog contains content that some individuals may find disturbing or distressing in nature. Please be emotionally prepared before proceeding.
Names, locations, and other identifying information have been changed for the safety of the victims and the Innocent Lives Foundation team. Any similarity to actual names, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Authors: Dr. Abbie Maroño
Published: November 27, 2023
Sometimes when it feels like the world is caving in around us, all we need is a hug from a loved one and suddenly everything doesn’t feel so bad anymore. It’s as though the embrace of our mothers, fathers, partners, etc., becomes a safe haven for us to let our worries go.
What’s more, not only is the physical touch of a loved one psychologically comforting, it is also biologically soothing. Quite literally, positive physical touch soothes an overactive and stressed nervous system by triggering the release of oxytocin, promoting positive social connection, and reducing cortisol (a stress hormone) levels. Although, it’s important to remember here that we are talking about responsive physical touch, which means ensuring that your touch does not impose or intrude upon the other person’s boundaries, personal space, or body without their consent.
With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that responsive physical touch between a child and their primary caregiver, such as hugging, cuddling, and gentle touch is essential for a secure attachment to be formed. Subsequently, a secure attachment is linked to better overall emotional development in children, including emotional regulation, and social competence.
But What Happens When A Developing Child Is Deprived Of Physical Touch?
As young children, our relationships, and the relationships of others we are exposed to, form the foundation of what we consider to be normal and thus expect from the world. Such relationships also serve as a foundation for our emotional development. Positive physical touch between a child and their primary caregiver is vital to ensure that this foundation is secure and trusting. Indeed, when young children are deprived of loving physical touch (such that, their parents will pick them up to change them when their diaper gets too full, but they won’t rock them to sleep, kiss them on the forehead, or embrace them), their emotional development suffers.
Moreover, this goes beyond simply affecting a child’s later perception of the world, it impacts the growth and connectivity of brain regions involved in emotional processing and regulation. Such that, positive touch experiences support the growth of these regions, whilst being deprived of touch impairs development.
Just think about that for a second; our neurological development is directly impacted by the physical touch we do, or do not receive. The consequences of this deprivation in later life range from difficulty understanding one’s own emotions, and trouble empathizing with others’ emotions, to an inability to maintain healthy and meaningful relationships.
Consider, were you raised by a caregiver who showed you love and affection through tactile interactions? How do you think that affects the way you express your emotions with others today? What if things had been different? And the most important question of all is, can the effects of deprivation be reversed?
Reversing The Effects Of Touch Deprivation
There is a saying that “we are all a product of our past,” and given what we have discussed thus far, we can all appreciate the truth in this. But that begs the question, are we stuck that way? Thankfully, it seems not.
What we must remember about the human brain is its extraordinary ability to adapt, reorganize, and form new neural connections. This process is otherwise known as neuroplasticity and is great news for emotional healing. Thus, while early experiences can have a profound and devastating impact on our lives and emotional development, the brain’s neuroplasticity provides a reassuring route to recovery.
Specifically, compelling research over the last decade has demonstrated that the positive effects of physical touch on emotional well-being and social bonding continue well beyond our childhoods. Such that engaging in healthy and loving touch experiences later in life can help address the lingering effects of touch deprivation. In fact, there are therapeutic practices designed specifically to address touch deprivation, these include but are not limited to somatic experiencing, touch therapy, and body-centered therapies.
Regardless of whether you consider yourself a tactile person (connect with others through touch) or not, we have a duty to our children to ensure we do everything we can to support their healthy development. Consequently, we must not neglect the importance of showing them loving physical touch.