A few years back, when Dr Johnsey Thomas, consultant lifestyle psychologist at Aster Prime Hospital, Hyderabad, was consulting patients, a little girl, about 8 years old, came and sat on his lap.
“Her parents soon followed and told me that their daughter was hardly talking to them. They said she doesn’t tell them anything,” recalls Dr Thomas. When he asked the little girl what was bothering her, she said she spent time only with her driver and nanny. “Her parents had an arrangement that when one person comes in, the other would go to work. But they were not spending much quality time with their daughter. As she opened up to me, I slowly gestured to the mother to pick her daughter up and give her a hug. The moment she did that, tears rolled down her cheeks. Her father also gave her a hug, and soon, they were all crying. It was such a powerful moment,” says Thomas.
The incident strengthened his long-held belief in the power of positive gestures of touch. “When a father lovingly pats a child on the head or back and says you did a good job, or when a parent hugs a child who is feeling low, it can completely change a person. Such gestures have a huge impact on a person’s mental well-being,” he elaborates.
From the moment you’re born, the first language of communication you understand is touch.
“The first minute of our life begins with touch. When a child is born, we advise mothers to cuddle their babies. This is known as kangaroo care and is vital for the child,” explains Dr Vasant R, consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Malar Hospital, Chennai.
Dr K John Vijay Sagar, Professor and Head, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, NIMHANS also states how a child’s first experience with its surrounding environment occurs through touch. “This starts right from the time the child is in the mother’s womb as a foetus. The sense of touch is essential to a child’s physical growth, development of language, cognitive skills and social-emotional competence,” states the doctor. “Skin-to skin contact between the mother and her infant helps in effective bonding. Effective parent–infant bonding also fosters the development of the infant’s brain. And adequate physical contact lowers the level of cortisol hormone, thereby resulting in improved immune functioning.”
Explaining how touch works, Dr Vasant from Chennai tells us that when physical touch is established, oxytocin is released. “This causes an increase in serotonin, which causes happiness and a feeling of well-being,” adds the doctor, who believes that positive physical touch can cause an increase in overall positivity and confidence. “In fact, for kids with stress and anxiety, this is one of the remedial measures we suggest to parents, and it helps to a large extent.”
“Gestures like a tight hug, a reassuring pat or a handshake can make a huge difference to the way your child feels. Such gestures help show appreciation for the child, without which the child ends up feeling neglected,” points out Dr Rajeevi, consultant psychiatrist, Nizampet, Hyderabad. She also adds that it shows the parents support the child, which, in turn, builds the child’s self-esteem. “Such gestures play a major role in the psychological development of the child,” she adds.
Many studies conducted over the years have found a range of benefits of positive touch. Tiffany Field, director of Touch Research Institute, University of Miami School of Medicine, and one of the most prominent names in the field of touch, has linked touch, in the form of massages, to benefits such as improved sleep, reduced irritability, weight gain and increased sociability among infants. Tiffany’s research found that pre-term new-borns who received just three fifteen-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for five to ten days gained forty-seven percent more weight than premature infants who had received standard medical treatment.
Need for society
With the current pandemic situation, it is important to keep a safe distance from others and reduce social gatherings. But psychologists believe this makes it even more important for those at home to support each other emotionally and show physical affection to family members. “Most kids go to school to meet friends. When they sit together and chat or when they play together, the energy is completely different. The fist bump or casual punch one shares with friends is also a reassuring touch. When they miss that it causes stress,” points out Thomas.
Dr Sagar also points out that as children’s regular schedules have been disrupted and are now confined to their homes because of the pandemic, they may experience a range of psychological issues such as anxiety, fear, worry, depression, difficulty sleeping, and loss of appetite. “Quarantine and isolation may also lead to acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and grief in many children,” he adds. “Parents should utilise this opportunity and spend quality time with their children on a regular basis. Physical expressions such as hugging, gentle touch etc. convey the parent’s affection to the child and instil a sense of security in children during these difficult times. Parents have to readily reciprocate similar expressions from their children,” he advises.
Dr Thomas understands that in the current work-from-home scenario, people miss out on social interaction. “In addition, many family members spend time with their gadgets, rather than with each other, which affects their mental health. But it’s important to remember that the virtual world cannot replace real life. Many who spend all their time in the virtual world find it difficult to navigate through the real world,” he points out. “In the current situation, it becomes even more imperative to spend quality time with family members. Getting up together, eating together, taking walks together are all important for the feeling of well-being.”
Man is a social animal, stresses Dr Vasant. “So, it is important to be connected with others. But if you are living alone, pick up the phone and talk to people; stay emotionally connected if you cannot stay physically connected,” he advises.
So whenever the situation changes and it’s safe to venture out and meet friends again, don’t forget to hug them all.
Benefits of positive touch
The Touch Research Institute located in the University of Miami School of Medicine, Florida, USA has shown the following benefits of touch
Pre-schoolers falling asleep sooner and sleeping longer
Improved control of asthma
Improved behaviour in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Greater on-task and social behaviours in children with autism
Decreased glucose levels and better compliance with diet in children with diabetes
– Surekha S