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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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Bal K

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

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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!)

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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.

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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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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