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The Importance of Physical Affection for Children and Adults Alike

The Importance of Physical Affection for Children and Adults Alike

The significance of physical human interaction is underestimated. We take connecting through touch for granted, limiting contact to habitual and circumstantial opportunity with our intimate partners, offspring, close family and friends. We may peck our partners good morning, rush through dressing and grooming our children, greet the people closest to us with a customary hug or hand shake. We protect our personal boundaries from strangers at all costs. We reduce physical affection to a mundane necessity; a meaningless custom. In doing so we fail to acknowledge how important it is for the survival of our species; for the well being of our physical, emotional and mental health; to actually touch another human being and convey important messages that words and deeds simply don’t deliver.

Humans practice what is known as pro social behavior, which is a voluntary action that benefits another person. In her article The Science of Touch and Emotion, Maria Alvarellos from the Berkeley Science Review says:

“By engaging in acts of trust and cooperation, social groups survive. Parents and offspring form attachments, and individuals act in mutually beneficial, altruistic ways to sow trust between one another.”

Touching and physical affection is a vital part of this process of pro social behavior. Various studies have shown that the need for skin to skin contact and warmth can improve weight gain in premature babies and touch can convey a variety of complex emotions including empathy and gratitude. The simple act of touching someone has been shown to improve cognitive and emotional development, including reducing susceptibility to depression and reducing some behaviors associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Being affectionately touched can even contribute to a stronger immune system.

Physical affection towards our children is highly promoted and encouraged, not only from a bonding perspective, but also for the promotion of development and well being. Skin to skin contact immediately after birth has been known to promote healing after such an intense experience, regardless of the complexities and unplanned events that birth sometimes entails. Kangaroo Care has been widely studied and is proven to regulate body temperature, breathing and heart rate in newborns. It promotes better sleep and more alert awake times in babies. It increases the volume and duration of lactation in new mothers and deepens a sense of connection and confidence to care for the new baby. Massaging new babies can have the same benefits and while many cultures have been doing this and passing on the knowledge for centuries, there are now also classes and workshops to advise new parents about the best way to connect with their new baby physically through touch and massage.

Showing physical affection towards our children comes very naturally to most of us. Their helpless dependence on us to fulfill their physical needs in their infancy, makes touching them a daily and necessary occurrence. It is important to be mindful and conscious of the times we can be close to our children when we aren’t just going through the mechanical motions of providing them with practical care. Holding their hands, stroking their hair, giving cuddles and kisses in abundance will not spoil them and won’t harm us. Quite the opposite. This intimacy benefits both parties and strengthens our relationships with our kinship groups.

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Physical intimacy with intimate partners and affection towards family members and close friends is also something we need to be more mindful of, to not only demonstrate the level of comfort we feel with the people closest to us, but also to convey emotions that go beyond verbally communicating.

Our sexual health is of utmost importance and having a sex positive attitude and awareness is something that is still considered taboo in many cultures. Unfortunately, the notion that sexual intercourse and connection is something to be practiced for the sole purpose of procreation can actually cause dysfunction and harm. It stunts the natural development of sexual desire and the physical need for intimacy. Scientific research shows that sexual expression between consenting adults has many health benefits. Experiencing pleasure through liberated sexual connection and sharing physical intimacy is important not only for our emotional, psychological and physical development, but it also has a global impact on birth rates, teen and unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and population size. Education about safe, consensual and shame free sex needs to be promoted and encouraged from an early age and statistics show that countries that educate children about sex early on have lower incidences of teen and unwanted pregnancy. The evidence is abundant that where young people, particularly young girls, are educated about their bodies, their reproductive functions and rights, and their sexual freedom; this empowerment has a huge impact on the prosperity and well being of the society as a whole. It alleviates poverty and violence (particularly domestic violence), enriches the economy by promoting workplace participation, improves public health and promotes social cohesion and stability.

Distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate touch is something that needs to be acknowledged. Depending on the culture and how well you know a person, touching need not be anymore than a gentle gesture. Touching can be significant even when limited to a pat on the arm or shoulder, a customary handshake, a kiss or two on the cheek in some cultures; to convey friendship, support or greeting. Unsolicited, overtly intrusive, unwanted and unwarranted sexual physical contact is highly inappropriate. Aggressive or condescending behavior like pushing, grabbing or patting on the head is not only offensive, but in most cases illegal. Especially when imposed on a stranger or a colleague for example.

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It is a good idea to refrain from forcing children to hug or kiss anyone, even if they are a relative. It teaches them bodily ownership and autonomy and educates them to form trusting and nurturing relationships, where physical contact evolves with consent and mutual affection rather than being imposed. Using force of any kind to bully children is never acceptable. Smacking humiliates them. It teaches them that violence is acceptable, particularly coming from someone who is bigger or has more power and authority. If they are too young to reason, they won’t understand a smack. If they are old enough to reason, then use reason! Being gentle and respectful when touching children is essential at all times. Their bodies belong to them and the dependence upon trusted custodians to care for them is a privilege that should not be abused.

Children should be taught about their body as soon as they have the capacity to understand, which is earlier than we think. We have an obligation and responsibility to teach them physical self determination and that we are there to facilitate their physical care and eventual independence. It is crucial to teach them about their body parts too; what they are called and how they function. Research shows that children who know the correct names for their genitals are less likely to be preyed upon. An abuser will not only assume that a child is more likely to accurately disclose an event of inappropriate touching, they will also fear that this child has a functional and constructive relationship with a trusted adult who will believe their story and this may be enough of a deterrent. A child that is educated about their body and the notion of privacy and physical space is also more likely to protect themselves and become less susceptible to grooming.

Physical affection is only beneficial when lovingly exchanged within the tender bounds of intimate relationships. With mutually constructive intentions, touching one another can soothe and reward us abundantly.

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Featured photo credit: Tumblr via wesharepics.info

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Diane Koopman

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Published on December 20, 2019

Is Authoritarian Parenting Good or Bad for Your Child?

Is Authoritarian Parenting Good or Bad for Your Child?

Kate sits down to the dinner table and is eager to be a good girl and eat her dinner like her Mom and Dad want her to do. She is a sweet girl who wants the approval of her parents very much. It is not always easy though. During dinner, she stands up and starts to leave the table because she has to use the bathroom. Her Dad yells at her to sit back down. He tells her “we don’t just get up from the dinner table, we wait and ask to be excused after everyone is finished eating.” She begins to protest, wanting to explain that she needs to use the bathroom. Her father becomes more upset with her and yells at her that she is now talking back and she is not allowed to say another word at the dinner table until everyone is finished eating and then she can be excused.

Unfortunately for Kate, she can’t hold it, and she has a little accident because she is too fearful to say a word to her Dad. She doesn’t want to get yelled at anymore. She also knows that in her home, kids don’t have a say. What Mom and Dad say is like words carved into stone. They are strict beyond reason and they will not bend their rules. Therefore, Kate felt that she had no choice in the matter and when she could no longer hold it. There was nothing she could do about it.

Kate’s parents are an example of authoritarian parenting. They are strict, they are not emotionally engaged with their children, and they have very high expectations for their children. This type of parenting style leaves children feeling disconnected from their parents.

Kate wanted to communicate to her parents that she had to use the restroom, but she couldn’t even get her words out because her parents have such strict rules and demands of her. They did not care to hear what she had to say, because upholding their rules was more important to them. In their household, a child’s opinions and feelings do not matter.

This kind of strict parenting is not helpful for children. It can damage a child and leave them with low self-esteem, mental health issues, and doing poor academically among other problems cited by research in Parenting Science.[1]

What Does Authoritarian Parenting Look Like?

In the 1960’s, a researcher and theorist by the name of Baumrind established the well known theory of parenting styles. Those four parenting styles, which are well known today, are authoritarian, authoritative, passive, and neglectful. For proactive parents that are trying hard to be good parents, they will usually lean toward either authoritarian or authoritative.

Authoritarian parenting involves strict parenting and high expectations for children. This can sound reasonable and even like good parenting. However, the strict parenting is often characterized by lack of compassion toward the child, little to no flexibility in rules, and complete control sought over the child’s behavior.

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Parents who use this parenting style believe it is their job to control the will and behavior of their children. An article in Psychology Today explains how authoritarian parents operate:[2]

Authoritarian parents believe that children are, by nature, strong-willed and self-indulgent. They value obedience to higher authority as a virtue unto itself. Authoritarian parents see their primary job to be bending the will of the child to that of authority—the parent, the church, the teacher. Willfulness is seen to be the root of unhappiness, bad behavior, and sin. Thus, a loving parent is one who tries to break the will of the child.

For example, Jake has authoritarian parents. He wants to stay out past curfew on a school night because he has an opportunity to play in a jazz ensemble. He has been playing the saxophone for years and his ambition is to play in a college jazz ensemble.

With Jake still being in high school, his parents have a curfew. On school nights, it is 8:00 pm. This rule is instituted because his parents believe they need to ensure that Jake gets his school work done each night and that he needs to be well rested for school the next day. However, they don’t explain the why of their rules to him, they simply tell him that those are their rules. The jazz ensemble is practicing at 8:00 pm on a Thursday night and they have invited Jake to come play with them. It is a well known group and a huge opportunity for Jake.

Unfortunately, his parents say no. Their authoritarian parenting style is unwavering. He wants to discuss the opportunity and its importance, but his parents will not even entertain the conversation. They stop him mid-sentence and go over their rules again. There is no flexibility.

If Jake’s parents had been authoritative, they would have taken the time to hear out his case and would likely have granted him a later curfew for that one instance. They would see that, although they have a curfew, there are some instances when an opportunity is worth bending the rules. They would ask that he has his homework done before going to play with the group, and that he come home as soon as the practice was finished.

Authoritative parents have rules, but they are also flexible based on reasonable requests for exceptions. The authoritative parents are interested in how their children are thinking and feeling. Conversely, authoritarian parents are not likely to be interested in hearing their child’s thoughts and feelings, because they want to control the will of their child, not come to some middle ground.

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Here are some characteristics of authoritarian parenting:

  • They have strict rules that are unyielding and unwavering. This is often called “heavy handed parenting.”
  • They do not want input from the child about rules. They also feel that the child’s opinion does not matter, because they are the parent thus are the supreme authority over the child.
  • There are severe punishments when rules are broken.
  • There is an emotional disconnection between parent and child, because the parent is not interested in what the child thinks or feels. They are more interested in controlling the behavior of the child and having the child be compliant to their rules.
  • Children are expected to listen to their parents and follow the rules, there are no exceptions. A child that voices their objections will likely be punished for doing so.
  • The parents have high expectations, especially when it comes to compliance of their rules.
  • Parents expect that their child will be obedient and they do not need to explain the “why” of their rules and expectations. Compliance is expected out of sheer obedience, not because the child understands the reasons why the rules are set. Parents do not feel the need to explain why they set their rules.
  • There is a failure to have attached relationships between parent and child because of the overly dominant nature of authoritarian parents and their unwillingness to allow their children to have their own voice or free will.

Authoritarian parents are driven by a belief that they need to control their children. This means controlling their children’s behavior to an extreme. They are inflexible and don’t take into account the child’s desires, emotions, or well-being as being as important to enforcing rules to get the desired outcome. Authoritative parents on the other hand, seek to guide and direct their children instead of control. There is a distinction.

The Problems of Authoritarian Parenting

Authoritarian parenting has many negative consequences to children. Children who are raised in homes with extreme authoritarian parenting are more likely to become dependent on drugs and alcohol, have lower academic performance, and increased mental health issues according to Parenting for Brain.[3] Children who are raised with authoritarian parents are also more likely to have lower self esteem, inability to make decisive choices, and have social skills that are lacking.

When a child is raised to be taught day in and day out that their voice does not matter, then that child will likely be ingrained with that belief. They will not value their own opinions because they have been taught that what they think does not matter and is of no value. This leads to poor self-esteem and low self-worth.

If a child doesn’t believe that their thoughts matter, then what they think about themselves overall is going to be affected. They will not think highly of themselves or believe that what they think, say, or do is of value. This will contribute to low self-esteem long term.

Social skills will suffer because a child who comes from an authoritarian home will be trained to believe that nobody wants to hear their opinion and that relationships are based on compliance.

For example, Judy is raised in an authoritarian home. She is now 18 years old and has her first boyfriend. Anytime that he asks something of her, even if she internally disagrees, she feels that she is supposed to comply and do what he says in order for him to like her and continue wanting to be with her.

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He wants to have sex. She does not feel that she is ready, but she will not voice this to her boyfriend because she doesn’t think that her opinion will matter or that he will want to listen to what she is feeling. She goes along with sex in their relationship to be compliant. She doesn’t want to be punished by disagreeing with not having sex. He says that they are ready for that next step in the relationship and she fears that the consequence of saying no would be that he ends the relationship.

Therefore, she doesn’t even voice her thoughts or feelings on the situation because she doesn’t think they have value or will be heard anyway.

She has been taught by her parents that her opinions and feelings don’t matter. She has learned from the past 18 years with her parents that what matters most is that she is compliant. She gets along with her parents best when she is doing exactly what they want her to do. This is why she feels the need to do the same with her boyfriend.

Going along with his decisions, being compliant, and not voicing her feelings will keep the relationship going and avoid conflict or punishment. The ultimate punishment in her mind would be that he ends the relationship.

With her opinions never being valued by those who she has loved the most (her parents), she has learned that she should not voice her opinion if she wants to keep the other person in the relationship happy. In her mind, because of how she has been raised, compliance overrides all else, and her opinion is meaningless.

However, her boyfriend is not her parents. He is understanding and would want to know how she feels. He wants a long term relationship with her and he loves her so much. His true desire is for her to be happy. He would never want her to have sex if she wasn’t feeling the same way that he was feeling. He would gladly wait and would want to hear what she thinks and feels about taking their relationship to the next level.

Authoritarian parenting methods can inflict great harm on a child. The child becomes emotionally damaged because they grow up believing that their opinions, thoughts, and feelings do not matter. Instead they are taught that compliance and being obedient supersedes all else.

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The Solution

The solution is to move from authoritarian parenting methods to authoritative parenting practices.

Authoritative parenting has been deemed as the best parenting method by researchers, according to Psychology Today. Parents who use authoritative parenting methods have rules for their children, but they are not looking for blind compliance. They recognize that having a relationship with their child is of great importance and therefore valuing the child’s voice, opinions, and thoughts is important.

Authoritative parents seek to guide and direct their children, but they do not seek to control the will of their child.

Parenting Coach Plan explains the foundation of authoritative parenting as the following:[4]

Authoritative parenting can be described as a style of parenting that combines firm limits and clear boundaries with fair and consistent discipline. Authoritative parents are also nurturing, highly-involved, and willing to speak openly with their child regarding expectations and the consequences for failing to meet those expectations. Rules are enforced and fair consequences are put in place for when those rules are broken.

Children raised in authoritative homes follow the rules because they understand the “why” of the rules. They are also bonded to their parents because they are able to talk to their parents openly. This bond helps nurture a positive home environment and a two-way relationship that can last a lifetime.

To learn more about how to be an authoritative parent and how to discipline a child using this parenting method, check out my article:

How to Discipline a Child (The Complete Guide for Different Ages)

Featured photo credit: Xavier Mouton Photographie via unsplash.com

Reference

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