My children sometimes struggle to express themselves verbally. Being children, they are not always able to talk about or ask for emotional support or nurturing. At times it has been hard for me to know what they are thinking and needing emotionally. However, lately I’ve noticed them seeking more and more physical connection in the form of wanting to wrestle, be picked up and held, receive piggyback rides, and sit on my lap during or following these moments of emotional difficulty.
These interactions got me to start thinking about how children use physical touch to communicate and experience intimacy and closeness in their relationships. Haptic communication is a type of non-verbal communication that describes how people communicate and interact through using the sense of touch. As touch is the most sophisticated and intimate of the five senses (Burgoon, Judee, Guerrero, Floyd, & Kory; 2010) it would make sense that using touch would be a fundamental way for children to interact with their environment. Infants are born with multiple tactile reflexes, such as the grasp reflex (closing their hand around a finger placed in their open palm) and the rooting reflex (when you stroke a baby’s cheek they will turn toward the side that was stroked and begin to make sucking motions). During this time when other senses are far from fully developed, touch serves as the primary avenue for feeding, warmth, and bonding.
Children need to experience healthy, loving touch. They need it from their fathers. Words are not always enough, and sometimes are not effective in reaching certain kids in certain situations. As men we need to explore ways to utilize haptic communication to provide connection with our children. This can come in many forms- kissing, hugging, the way you pick up and hold your child when they are sad or scared, wrestling or other sports/physical activity, holding their hand while walking or when showing them how to complete a task, tickling them, and tucking them in before bed. It is equally as important to practice healthy consent when providing this physical touch. Making sure your child is okay with, and willing to receive, physical contact is a requirement before picking them up, hugging them or kissing them. This consent can be verbal (asking your child if they want a hug or if you can give them a kiss) or non-verbal (opening up your arms and allowing them to walk into your embrace). Either way the child should be the one guiding the interaction and should never feel pressured or forced to engage in physical connection.
My 5 year-old son loves getting his back scratched. He will plop himself down beside me, crawling under my arm and lifting up the back of his shirt. No words are exchanged. We share these quiet moments of touch and connection, and our relationship becomes stronger as a result. When boys receive frequent healthy, loving touch from their fathers they feel safe and important. Learning how this type of nurturing looks and feels allows them to grow into more caring and nurturing partners and fathers as they get older. In a world today where distance and non-contact is preached and enforced everywhere, we need to make sure our children are getting enough closeness and touch when at home. No matter how old my sons get, I will continue to kiss them and hug them as much as humanly possible, for as long as they will allow me.