Have we learnt not to touch?

Charlotte JenkinsBeacon Community Services, Beacon Education Services, Beacon Family Services, Beacon Training Services, Family Relationships, News

Last autumn I made an important purchase. I bought the biggest, woolliest, warmest cardigan I could find. I have worn it like a big hug through this locked down winter. It has been a sort of substitute hug that has made up for all the hugs I have not been able to share with friends and my wider family.

I am comfortable with hugs. Actually, I love them  and I have missed this aspect of my friendships greatly. As restrictions are slowly relaxing and reunions are taking place many people like me are eager to shrug off their makeshift comforts and hug and shake the hands of their friends again.

When we are born touch is the very first sense to develop. From birth, being held by a caring parent stabilises our heart rate and encourages important social bonding. During the pandemic we have had to use physical distancing to reduce the spread of Covid. We have had to learn how not to touch and how to cope with the void a lack of touch can create.

Touch is so important that throughout our lives being touched the right amount and in the right way is associated with reduced anxiety. Babies bond with their parents, not because they provide food, but because they provide comfort too.

In the 1950s and 60s psychologist Harry Harlow led a controversial experiment separating newborn infant monkeys from their mothers at birth. While it certainly wouldn’t be allowed now, the results were interesting. In the experiment, the newborn monkeys were given access to a terry cloth ‘mother’ and also a wire ‘mother’. Though the newborn monkeys were content to get their food from either ‘mother’, they much preferred staying close to the terry cloth ‘mother’.

In Harlow’s experiment baby monkeys preferred the comfort of the terry cloth ‘mother’.

What this tells us is that parental nurture matters. When the baby monkeys did not have the experience of nurturing touch, they were reclusive and full of social anxiety. What we learnt from Harlow’s monkeys (you can find out more about the experiment here) is how innate our need for comfort through touch really is.

Covid has certainly reduced the number of handshakes, handholds, pats on the back and hugs we enjoy. It is a fact that children and adults benefit from touch. The results of Harlow’s research makes me worry me that during this pandemic our children have been getting less experience of positive and healthy touch and I can’t help but think about the impact this may have.

If all continues to go to plan we will be hugging very soon. Over the past year we have all had to learn how not to touch. As we come out of this global pandemic, I’m encouraging parents to offer children as much nurturing touch as is comfortable for them and their child/ren. We must make sure that they are able to experience positive touch in a way that provides them with comfort.

Don’t get me wrong, big, comfy cardigans are great, but I, for one, am definitely looking forward to the true warmth of a real hug!

Charlotte Jenkins is the Founder and a Director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. 

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