The Remarkable Power of Touch

The Remarkable Power of Touch

The power of touch is profound – whether it is an accidental glazing from a stranger, the strong kneading of a professional masseur, a gentle hold from someone close, a reassuring squeeze of the hand, an ‘I see you’ caress, an encouraging touch on the back, a quick kiss on the forehead or one that is slower, more tender and more anticipated. It can strengthen connections, heal, communicate, influence and soothe. When the touch is cold and brittle, it can also widen the distance between two people. If it came with gorgeous packaging and retail hype, we’d be lining up to do the deal. Fortunately, we don’t need to do any of that. 

Our skin is our largest organ and would measure about two metres if it was laid flat. Given that our bodies are precious real estate, for something to take up this much room, there must be a good reason for it. Yes it’s to stop infections and yes it’s to stop our important bits and pieces falling out but there is another reason. It is the pathway for touch – one of our most powerful and important functions. For long-term wellbeing, touch is as important as food and security.

In one tender squeeze there are so many things that can be said. ‘You’ll be okay.’ ‘I’m proud of you.’ ‘Yeah, I’m worried about it too.’ ‘It’s scary isn’t it.’ ‘You’re freaking amazing.’ ‘Come on. Talk to me.’ ‘What’s happening with us?’ ‘I love you.’ When it’s from the right person in the right context, we rarely have to guess the words – the words become irrelevant anyway. Instantly we can feel closer, calmer and more understood. 

Touch is fundamental to the human experience. It is most likely no accident then, that the lack of connection, either emotional or physical is discussed in terms of touch – tactless, lost touch with, out of touch.

Of course, touch can also hurt. With very good reason, we have made moves to protect ourselves and those we care about from the type of touch that can have catastrophic consequences. There are strong boundaries around the appropriate use of touch and this is a good thing – we need to feel safe. ‘Safe touch’ though, doesn’t have to mean ‘no touch’.

In discouraging the wrong touch, we need to be careful not to make ourselves vulnerable to ‘touch hunger’, a phenomenon described by Dr Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. When we experience a lack of physical contact, fundamental human needs are left unmet, particularly around our relationships and our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Research has found clear cultural differences in interpersonal touch. In a widely cited study, psychologist Sidney Jourard observed friends chatting to each other in cafes across the world. Jourard found that in the space of an hour, people in Puerto Rico touched each other an average of 180 times. In Paris, it was 110 times. Jet over to Florida and the averaged dropped to twice an hour. In London the average was zero.

There are plenty of good reasons not to touch every stranger we see – there’s touch hunger, and then there’s creepy – but when we hold back on too much, we miss out on too much.

What do we need to know? The unspoken rules.

We need touch. We need the comfort, the connection the security and the powerful emotional and physical health benefits that come by being touched in safe and appropriate ways. An abundance of research has found that the benefits of touch don’t stop at the people we feel safe folding into. Less than one second of safe, interpersonal touch, such as a hand to the back or the shoulder can influence health and behaviour in remarkable ways. But how to do this safely.

Not all touch is created equal. Research has found certain rules and ‘no-fly zones’ when it comes to interpersonal touch.  We all have a zone of personal space that feels comfortable but the distance of that no-fly zone depends on culture and social norms, length of touch, context, relationship and where the touch is. According to research:

  • The touch has to feel non-sexually harassing. This depends on the specific part of the body touched and on the specific characteristics of the person (gender, age and relationship with the touched person).
  • Being touched on the face by a co-worker is considered the most inappropriate and harassing type of touch. It is not surprising then, that it is also a touch that sends the strongest messages in intimate relationships as well. A touch to the face in intimate relationships can be tender and communicate love and intimacy, or it can be aggressive and frightening and done to communicate control and dominance.
  • Touch in the waist region is also inappropriate and harassing.
  • A gentle tap on the shoulder is considered the least harassing. 

The many powers of touch.

Touch is such a powerful means of communication. It is the first language we learn and it is the first sense to develop. Done appropriately, it has a profound capacity to nurture our relationships and our overall well-being. Here are some things that it’s capable of.

  1. More nurturing touch, less violence.

    Research shows that when there is greater physical affection during childhood, the rates of adult physical violence are lower. On the other hand, when touch is limited, physical and verbal aggression is higher. The results have been found in both adolescents and children

  2. Communication without words.

    Professor Matt Hertenstein at DePauw University has researched the use of touch as a language and has found that we can communicate emotion through touch, not just with those we are familiar with, but also with strangers. Hertenstein put two strangers in front of each other and separated them with a physical barrier. One person had to put their arm through a hole in the barrier. The other person had to communicate an emotion to the stranger on the other side using only a one-second touch to the stranger’s forearm. With so many emotions on the list, the chances of guessing the right emotion just by chance were about 8%. The results left no doubt about our ability to communicate emotion through touch. Compassion was correctly interpreted almost 60% of the time, Gratitude, anger, love and fear were correctly interpreted more than 50% of the time. 

  3. Reduces stress.

    There’s no doubt that a cuddle from the right person at the right time can take the steam out of stress. Any touch, even an incidental one that lasts for less than a second, can soothe the physiological response to stress by lowering blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone). Lower stress means happier hearts. 

  4. Brings people closer together.

    Oxytocin is affectionately known as ‘the cuddle chemical’. Affection that is wanted causes the release of oxytocin. It helps to nurture feelings of trust and connectedness and it also reduces cortisol (the stress hormone). Twenty seconds of affectionate touching (hugging, back rubs, gentle stroking) is enough to trigger the release of oxytocin. It is also released during sex.

  5. Communicates compassion.

    Sometimes there are no words, but there is  touch. Touch activates the body’s vagus nerve which is intimately connected with our compassionate response. The vagus nerve is the pair of nerves that extends from the brain to the belly and passes the heart along the way. 

  6. It just makes people … nicer.

    Those who are touched in ways that feel appropriate and safe are more likely to co-operate and share resources. As always, the touch doesn’t have to be monumental. A quick touch on the back can do beautiful things.

  7. Nurtures growth and development.

    For babies to thrive, they need to be touched. Premature babies who received three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 consecutive days gained 47% more weight than those who received standard medical care and all the nutrition, warmth and physical security. As well as this, infants whose mothers touched them more had more advanced visual motor skills and more advanced gross motor development. 

  8. But it’s not just for the babies.

    Massage therapy reduces the pain in pregnant women, helps to ease the symptoms of prenatal depression and improves the couple relationship.

  9. Helps people with Alzheimers

    Touching (touch therapy, massage therapy) for patients with Alzheimers reduces stress and depressive symptoms and helps them to make emotional connections with others.

  10. A touch that lasts less than a second can influence behaviour. 

    Research found that students who were gently touched on the back by a teacher in a friendly incidental way were twice as likely to volunteer and participate in a class discussion. In the study, undergraduate university students were first asked to work on a maths problem individually. All students were given positive encouragement by the teacher as they worked on the problem. As the teacher delivered the praise to each student, a number of students were briefly touched for one second on the forearm as they worked. Following this, students were asked to demonstrate the solution on a board in front of the class. Students who were briefly touched on the forearm by the teacher during the exercise were more likely to volunteer than those who were not. 

    Touching tends to have become taboo in the American school system and valid fears about abusive forms of touching rightfully limit contact within the classroom. But these findings suggest that as we define and redefine the limits for this contact, we should not neglect the sense of comfort and confidence that might come through the right kinds of touch between strangers.‘  Nicolas Guéguen, Professor of Psychology.

  11. And in the library.

    When students checked out a book from a library, students who had the library card returned to them in such a way that they had physical contact with the librarian for about half a second, reported liking the library more and were more likely to go back. The touch was so minimal that not all were aware of the touch when it happened. The effect was the same whether students were consciously aware of the touch or not. 

    Moving from the library to the sales room, buyers who were slightly touched by a salesperson rated that salesperson more positively than buyers who weren’t touched. The key is ‘slightly’ touched as in very non-aggressive, very non-sleazy and very incidental. 

  12. Happier, closer intimate relationships.

    Physical affection between couples is gold in relationships. Aside from boosting that loving feeling, physical affection eases the subjective experience of stress and improves relationship satisfaction. When couples in one study were asked to take part in a stressful event (public speaking), those couples who hugged for 20 seconds after spending 10 minutes holding hands and watching a romantic video (awwww) had significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate than the couples who only rested quietly for 10 minutes and 20 seconds.

  13. Builds champion teams.

    Research has found that teams that touched more performed better. In research that looked specifically at NBA players , it was found that when players touch their teammates more, such as with a high five, fist bumps, chest bumps, a hug after scoring a goal, they performed better. The reason for this is unknown – we just know it works. It is likely to be related to increased co-operation, increased confidence, and a closer connection between players.

  14. Makes your sorry sound ‘sorrier’.

    Touch during an apology adds warmth and sincerity. It triggers a part of the brain called the insula which plays a part in processing emotions. The warmth, closeness, eye contact and other messages that are communicated through touch can help soothe leftover negative emotion and upset that has warranted the apology in the first place.

To make it count, be mindful.

Tuning in to the touch isn’t always necessary – touch has been shown to have positive benefits even when the experience of being touched doesn’t register – but being mindful of the touch will boost the good that comes from it.

Touch is a language, and listening can be profoundly connecting, healing and soothing. When you hug someone close to you, for example, slow it down. Feel the full experience of the touch. Feel the warmth of the skin or the electricity or tenderness that might not come from it. Rather than having it pass as a thing you do, let it be a thing you feel.

With strangers touch can be more difficult. Opportunities will present themselves but there are plenty of social rules that stand guard. Handshaking is a form of touch which is socially acceptable with strangers and when it is done mindfully, it can allow for eye contact and a greater connection. When it’s appropriate and incidental, as opposed to creepy and forced, brief interpersonal touch can make a very real difference to an interaction.

And finally …

We all have an inbuilt need to be touched. When it is done respectfully and appropriately, touch is a vital part of the human experience. The touch doesn’t have to be intimate and it doesn’t have to be big to have an effect. A pat on the back, a rub on the shoulder, a handshake, a professional massage – all stimulate the reward centres in the brain. We feel happier, safer, more confident, more soothed and more connected.

Over time, our own histories and experiences influence the way we see the world and the way we reach into it to fulfil our needs. Though we need to stay protected and be wary of unsafe touch, we also need to be careful not to rob ourselves of the nurturing, healing and connectedness that comes through basic human touch. Humans need humans. It has always been that way and it always will be. It is important to define what is right and what is acceptable and to have boundaries where necessary, and at the same time leave space for what will nourish our health, our relationships and our spirit.

27 Comments

Vernon A

In the era of the global pandemic that is Covid-19 I searched out web articles about the human touch even as physical distancing becomes the new normal. Thank you for this.

Reply
C

I had read this article not so long before, last fall, and shared with a girlfriend. It was the 30 second hug story that led me here even though I follow Karen’s blog.
Little did I know I would be experiencing the same thing Lisa Brown shared. Sure, enough, I was at my fathers deathbed, and their he was holding my hand as we looked into each others eyes, giving me my last reassurances that everything would be alright.

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Laura O

In these strange days of Covid-9 we are at last becoming aware of the disappointments and sadness of not being allowed to touch anyone…I hope that as a result of this “enlightenment” people in the UK and USA will realise we have gone too far in the “no touching” direction, and will once again start to enjoy the simple pleasures of a friendly, non-aggressive, non-sleazy touch, once the pandemic has passed.

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Jacqueline M

I never really understood how important human touch was until I started attending a private high school with a No Touch policy. Your work has helped me understand that no matter what anyone says, human touch is a required part of human life no matter how old you are.

Reply
Colleen

Hi Karen,
I would love to use a quote from your article for a speech I am doing. Could you please give me your background? maybe credentials? I love your content in this article!
Thank you!

Reply
Sassy

What about a spouse who needs to be touched anytime your near…foot massage, hair rubbed, shoulders\neck. I love to hold hands and be near but it’s almost an expectation to extremes. I try not to expect those things often because they are special, a treat for long days, times alone. I don’t want to be demanding. But literally…if I’m near I can’t just touch. I have to massage, rub, be involved in a task. No just being close and holding hands. It’s exhausting at times and it seems abnormal to me to expect that so often. Am I wrong?

Reply
Bal K

I am a Parkinson’s sufferer and the uplifting and compassion conveyed are very encouraging. Thank you for your help.

Reply
Tops

All the comments are so relevant but so much today is about not touching. How do we square the circle

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Karen Young

It’s about touch happening in the context of a relationship where the boundaries are clear, and where touch is wanted and invited.

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Lisa Brown

The day that my father died, we held hands. As he kept rubbing my thumb, I had no idea that would be the last time I’d feel the reassuring touch of my dad.

After he passed away, I was dreading my first Father’s Day without him. God in His compassion allowed me to dream of Daddy a week before Father’s Day. In the dream, my father placed his arm around my shoulder and said that he’d always be with me.

It’s only been seven months since he passed, so my emotions are still raw. On the days that I cannot seem to control the tears, I begin rubbing my thumb as Daddy rubbed it on the day he died.

The power of human touch goes beyond our mortal bodies: it is eternal.

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Lisa Brown

The day that my father died, we held hands. As he kept rubbing my thumb, I had no idea that would be the last time I’d feel the reassuring touch of my dad.

After he passed away, I was dreading my first Father’s Day without him. God in His compassion allowed me to dream of Daddy a week before Father’s Day. In the dream, my father placed his arm around my shoulder and said that he’d always be with me.

It’s only been seven months since he passed, so my emotions are still raw. On the days that I cannot seem to control the tears, I begin rubbing my thumb as Daddy rubbed it on the day he died.

The power of human touch goes beyond our mortal bodies: it is eternal>

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Natalie

My husband is Spanish and we have moved back to Spain after living 30 years in Canada. The people here kiss and hug and touch with all the time and I love it! But the problem here is that everybody talks but nobody listens – parents don’t listen to their children and the children and adolescents suffer from this. Any thoughts?

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Hey Sigmund

Children learn so many things from their parents that their parents don’t realise they are teaching them – even listening! Listening is a skill that also needs to be learned. The hardest part is putting your own needs on hold for long enough to listen to what someone else needs. It’s not as automatic as you might think. If parents aren’t listening to their kids, it’s not surprising that kids aren’t listening to their parents. (But the way people touch sounds lovely!)

Reply
Zoe

Thank you so much!

I just love this article!

If everyone knew and practiced this, it would be a major step forward to creating a saner world.

Reply
Sue

This article made me think about the mixed messages we send to teens, at a time in their lives when the need for touch explodes and also during a time when there is a natural distancing from parents. We dismiss their need for touch and natural exploration (confusing it with sexual acting-out). Yet, this can be a time of serious hard-life lessons about ‘good touch/bad touch.’ It seems to me that we need healthier more open discussions with young people on the topic of touch. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

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Hey Sigmund

Sue I absolutely agree with you. The need for touch never leaves, but with confusing information (or no information!) teens are vulnerable to decisions that might not be good ones for them. Conversation is key isn’t it.

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Lucy

This is a really lovely article, thank you. I am a physio and it is such a privilege to be able to touch people (without wanting to sound like a pervert) and to connect with them in a tactile way.
At the moment my kids drive me mad by touching me all the time and leaning on me, but I also know that at some point they won’t do this, and I will crave their touch when its gone.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Lucy. The work you do as a physio is healing on so many levels and touch is at the heart of it. I know what you mean with your kids – sometimes a moment of space would be so nice wouldn’t it. It will ease off a lot eventually but they’ll never be too old for a cuddle (even if they act like they are!).

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Turenne

It is great to raise our awareness about nurturing, mending a relationship or just showing that we care with a simple mindful touch. Mindfulness is the key to a safe and healthy touch. Isn’t it?

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Hey Sigmund

Absolutely Turenne. Touch can be so powerful can’t it and mindfulness is such an important part of everything we do, including keeping touch safe, nurturing and healthy.

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Turenne

I agree Karen! What attracts me most in Hey Sigmund is that I feel mindfulness underlying every beautiful article.

I trust dance to help understand viscerally that important state of being and to learn through a better connection to our body to live mindfully. I try to share that on world dance spirit danse .

Care to give me your feedback on this?

Reply

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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