What happens if a child is not hugged enough?

Physical touch and affection are crucial for a child’s healthy development. Children who are not hugged, held, and cuddled enough can face several problems later in life including difficulty with emotional regulation, lack of empathy, and challenges forming healthy relationships. Consistent, loving physical contact in a child’s early years lays the foundation for their future wellbeing.

Why is hugging important for children?

Hugging meets a child’s need for warm, caring physical contact. A hug is soothing and makes a child feel valued and secure. Hugs also release oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and feelings of love and trust. When a parent or caregiver regularly hugs a child, it strengthens their lifelong parent-child bond.

Hugs can help regulate a child’s emotions. The gentle pressure of a hug has a calming effect that can soothe a child when they feel angry, fearful, stressed or anxious. Being held close signals safety to a young child, lowering stress hormones like cortisol. Hugging also raises levels of serotonin, elevating mood.

What happens neurologically when a child is not hugged enough?

Neglecting to hug a child prevents their brain from developing normally in key ways. Physical contact promotes full maturation of the limbic system, the area of the brain involved in managing emotions. Without enough affectionate touch in infancy and early childhood, these emotional circuits may not form properly.

Insufficient hugging can also impact the production of key neurotransmitters like oxytocin and serotonin, which affect mood, bonding, trust and feelings of security. Brains deprived of regular affectionate contact may not learn how to regulate emotions or handle stress effectively.

The long-term effects of not hugging a child enough

Children require frequent hugs in their early years to help shape a healthy brain and nervous system. If this need goes unmet due to parental neglect or lack of affection, the child is at risk for:

Difficulty regulating emotions

Without the soothing effects of regular hugs, a child may struggle to control intense feelings like anger, sadness, fear or anxiety. They may have frequent emotional outbursts, mood swings and excessive distress when faced with minor frustrations. Poor emotional control can lead to isolation, classroom disruptions, and trouble making friends.

Reduced empathy

Being held and hugged helps children feel cared for and valued early in life. This fosters empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. If children do not get enough affectionate touch, the part of the brain that supports empathy may not properly develop. Children deprived of hugs often struggle to show concern for others.

Increased aggression

Physical touch soothes the nervous system. Without this calming effect, children are prone to hyperarousal and may overreact to minor irritations. Insufficient hugging in early childhood also impairs impulse control. As a result, children denied affection are more likely to act out aggressively due to an inability to manage frustration.

Attachment disorders

A lack of warm contact in infancy interrupts the bonding process between parent and child. The child fails to see their caregiver as a source of safety and security. This can manifest as attachment disorders later in life like reactive attachment disorder, characterized by unstable moods, defiance and poor interpersonal relationships.

Withdrawal from physical contact

If children do not get hugged enough early on, they can become touch adverse. Human touch may feel uncomfortable or threatening rather than soothing. A child deprived of affection is unlikely to seek out hugs or physical closeness. They may resist or reject future attempts at hugging.

Trust issues

Regular loving touch teaches children that others can comfort and care for them. Without this foundation, they may see relationships as unreliable sources of support. Children lacking in hugs can grow up struggling to trust other people.

Relationship problems

Hugging forms the roots of closeness that allow children to form healthy bonds later in life. Children denied affection often have trouble relating to peers and romantic partners. They are at increased risk for unstable relationships, social anxiety, and isolation.

Depression and anxiety

Touch stimulates pressure receptors under the skin that slow down the nervous system. Without this calming benefit, children are more prone to excessive worrying and feelings of sadness. Lack of parental hugs may predispose a child to clinical anxiety and depressive disorders.

Delayed development

Research indicates that hugging and affection stimulates optimal growth. Children deprived of touch are more likely to exhibit physical and cognitive delays. They may miss developmental milestones in motor skills, speech, and socialization.

Diminished immunity

Hugs from mom or dad can actually protect children from getting sick. Physical affection boosts the immune system. Children denied frequent hugs are more susceptible to infections and inflammatory conditions.

How much hugging does a child need?

There is no definitive number of daily hugs required to meet a child’s needs. However, children need warm, loving touch from infancy throughout childhood. It is especially crucial in the first 3 years of life as the brain rapidly develops. Most experts recommend a minimum of 8 to 10 lengthy hugs per day in early childhood.

The key is providing affectionate physical contact regularly and generously from birth through adolescence. Babies should be held, cuddled, and gently stroked often throughout the day. Toddlers need spontaneous hugging and lap sitting as they explore their environment. Preschoolers benefit from daily snuggling at bedtime and being pulled in for quick reassuring hugs.

Touch should adapt as children grow older but continue in the form of pats on the back, side hugs, hand-holding, and playful contact like high fives and tickling. The primary caregiver should take the lead but relatives, childcare providers and teachers also play a role.

How to know if your child needs more hugs

Consider upping the physical affection if your child:
– Seems restless, fussy or cries frequently
-Tends to be clingy and fearful of separation
– Has trouble calming down when upset
-Often acts defiant or aggressive
-Appears sad, worried or withdrawn
– Struggles to interact well with peers
– Has regressed developmentally
– Gets sick often
– Avoids being touched or held
– Acts detached emotionally

If your child is asking for hugs more than usual, being extra snuggly, or gravitating to yoga balls, weighted blankets or tight spaces, their body may be craving more sensory input. Increase hugging and watch for signs of reduced stress.

Also reflect on your own hugging habits. Unless instructed otherwise, most children cannot get too much affection. If hugs feel unnatural or you worry about spoiling your child, hugging therapy may benefit both of you.

Tips for hugging your child more

– Start a daily hug routine. Hug your child first thing in the morning, after school, and before bed.
– Give hugs freely. Embrace the moment when your child least expects it.
– Respect boundaries. Let your child have some control and give them the option to decline.
– Try hugging from behind. This feels less confrontational for touch-averse kids.
– Snuggle up together to read, watch a movie or nap.
– Slow down and savor the warmth. Avoid rushing through hugs.
– Use a firm, steady pressure. Light tickling touches can be overstimulating.
– Smooth circles on the back or arm can be calming. Match your child’s preferences.
– Offer hugs after discipline to reconnect. Say “I still love you, even when you make mistakes.”
– Use positive physical guidance like squeezing a fussy toddler’s hand gently. This sends the message that you care about them, even when frustrated.
– Model healthy hugging with a spouse, family members, and friends to normalize it.
– Never force unwanted touches. Forcing contact can make children touch averse.
– Consider babywearing in a sling or carrier to provide soothing closeness.

When to get help

Pay attention if a child in your care avoids or refuses hugs and seems disconnected. Consult a doctor or mental health professional right away if the child shows persistent:

– Difficulty managing emotions
– Aggression or self-harm
– Defiance and lack of remorse
– Failure to reach developmental milestones
– Depression, anxiety or panic attacks
– Difficulty forming social connections
– Anger issues
– Speech and learning concerns
– Excessive fussiness and crying
– Frequent illness
– Poor impulse control
– Sleep problems

A child struggling in these ways needs professional support to assess for developmental delays or psychological disorders. With early intervention, the long-term damage of childhood deprivation can often be reversed.

Helping an older child deprived of affection

The negative effects of insufficient hugging can persist into adulthood. But it is never too late to heal. If your child’s basic needs for comfort and connection were unmet early on, focus on building trust through patient nurturing.

– Offer hugs while respecting reluctance. Let the child initiate contact at their own pace.
– Spend one-on-one quality time focusing on their interests.
– Validate their feelings and give reassurance often.
– Provide consistent support and predictability with routines.
– Celebrate small successes to bolster confidence.
– Model healthy physical affection with others.
– Work with therapists trained in attachment disorders.
– Consider trying hugging therapy.
– Join a support group for adoptive/foster families.
– Discuss any concerning behaviors with your pediatrician.
– Ask about occupational therapy to help overcome sensory issues with touch.
– Seek psychotherapy to improve mood, anxiety and social capacities.
– Rule out neurodevelopmental disorders that may contribute like autism.
– Consider medications to curb aggressive impulses if needed.
– Arrange playdates to gently build friendship skills over time.

Healing from early deprivation requires time and a caring support network. But lasting change is always possible. Compassion goes a long way when a child feels safe, understood and valued. Each positive hugging experience can help rewire the brain toward healthier emotional functioning.


Hugging meets a fundamental human need for positive sensory contact that starts in infancy. Children require frequent affectionate touch from caregivers to build developmental skills and emotional wellbeing. If this critical nurturing is missing due to neglect or lack of parental bonding, children face lifelong challenges with attachment, mood regulation, empathy and relationships.

While early deprivation causes lasting harm, its effects can be improved with compassion, professional support, and gradual exposure to caring physical contact. By better understanding the importance of touch, parents and caregivers can foster happier, healthier children. Consistent, heartfelt hugging provides benefits that last a lifetime.

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