Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jan 23, 2020

How a Parent’s Affection Shapes a Child’s Happiness

by Sandi Schwartz
Black couple embracing and kissing young son

Parents live busy, stressful lives and have endless concerns. But one of the most important things they can do is to stop and give their children a big loving squeeze. Research over the past decade highlights the link between affection in childhood and health and happiness in the future. 

According to Child Trends—a nonprofit research organization that focuses on improving the lives of children, youth, and their families—science supports the idea that warmth and affection expressed by parents to their children result in life-long positive outcomes for those children.

Higher self-esteem, improved academic performance, better parent-child communication, and fewer psychological and behavior problems have been linked to this type of affection. On the other hand, children who do not have affectionate parents tend to have less positive outcomes on all of these same measures.


What the Science Says

A number of recent studies have highlighted the relationship between parental affection and children’s happiness and success.

In 2010, researchers at Duke University Medical School found that babies with very affectionate and attentive mothers grow up to be happier, more resilient, and less anxious adults. Five hundred people were followed from infancy until their early 30s. When the babies were eight months old, psychologists observed their mothers’ interactions with them as the babies took several developmental tests. Then 30 years later, those same individuals were interviewed about their emotional health.

The adults whose mothers showed “extravagant” or “caressing” affection were much less likely than the others to feel stressed and anxious. They were also less likely to report hostility, distressing social interactions, and psychosomatic symptoms. Researchers concluded that the hormone oxytocin may be responsible for this effect, as it is released when a person feels emotions related to love and connection.

Similarly, a 2013 study from UCLA found that unconditional love and affection from a parent can make children emotionally happier and less anxious. This seems to happen because a child’s brain changes as a result of receiving affection. On the other hand, the negative impact of childhood abuse and lack of affection impacts children both mentally and physically. This can lead to all kinds of health and emotional problems throughout children’s lives. These scientists concluded that parental affection can protect people against the harmful effects of childhood stress.

Then in 2015, a study out of the University of Notre Dame showed that children who receive affection from their parents were happier as adults. More than 600 adults were surveyed about how they were raised, including how much physical affection they received. The adults who reported receiving more affection in childhood displayed less depression and anxiety and were more compassionate. Those who reported less affection struggled with mental health, tended to be more upset in social situations, and were less able to relate to other people’s perspectives.

Researchers have also studied the benefits of skin-to-skin contact for infants. This special interaction between mother and baby, in particular, helps calm babies so they cry less and sleep more. This same skin to skin contact also seems to boost brain development. According to a review in Scientific American, children who lived in a deprived environment such as an orphanage had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than did those who lived with their parents. Scientists believe that the lack of physical contact in the orphanages was a major factor in these physical changes.  

Finally, numerous studies on the effects of massage show the positive benefits it offers to reduce anxiety in children. Massage is also a good way for parents to connect to their children, both physically and emotionally. Starting in infancy, parents can begin to massage their child, which can create a strong bond. Studies have shown children and adults who receive massages experience less anxiety during academic stress, hospital stays, and other stressful events.


How Parents Can Bring More Hugs into Their Family’s Day

From the moment parents bring home their baby from the hospital, they are encouraged to hold, touch, and rock them in their arms so that they caress skin to skin.

As kids get older, parents can be playful by doing fun activities like dancing together or creating silly games like pretending to be a hugging or kissing monster.

One tip is for parents to set a reminder to make sure hugging is part of their family’s daily routine. They can set certain times of the day, such as before the children leave for school, when they get home from school, and before bedtime.

Another interesting idea is for parents to use affection while disciplining their child. While talking to kids about what they did wrong, parents can put their hand on their kid’s shoulders and give them a hug at the end of the conversation—to remind their children that punishment does not mean any reduction in parental love.   

Finally, it’s important that parents are careful not to go overboard and smother their children. They should respect their children’s individual comfort levels and be aware that this will change as kids go through different stages.  If you are a new parent, enjoy holding hands with your preschooler or even your 10-year old. But don’t be surprised if your middle schooler feels he or she has outgrown this. 


Sandi Schwartz is a science writer, positive psychology and environmental expert, and mom blogger who has written extensively about wellness, parenting, and the environment. You can find her at www.happysciencemom.com.

 

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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