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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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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

Signs of Depression in Children (And How to Help Them to Overcome It)

Signs of Depression in Children (And How to Help Them to Overcome It)

Children, just like adults, can be depressed. Sometimes seemingly normal children with no major life issues can become depressed. It is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes clinical depression to occur. There are specific signs that you should recognize in your child if they are depressed. Getting them help and treatment is crucial to their mental wellness.

In this article, we will look into the signs of depression in children and how parents can help them to overcome it.

Signs of depression in children

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder) is the widely accepted instruction guide that professionals utilize for diagnosing mental disorders. The DSM characterizes a Major Depressive Episode as depressed behaviors that consistently last for two weeks or longer. Therefore, if your child has been “down in the dumps”, feeling hopeless or having sadness for more than two weeks, it should be cause for concern and investigated.

Below are signs of depression according to the DSM manual. The individual must have at least five of these behaviors present for a period of two weeks or longer to be officially diagnosed as having MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). Below is a summary/generalization from the DSM manual:

  • Feelings of deep sadness or depressed mood that last most of the day (for two weeks or more). For children they can present as irritable rather than sad.
  • Diminished interest in activities (again majority of the day or all the time).
  • Significant weight loss (not through dieting), or a decrease in appetite. In children, they fail to make expected weight gains while growing.
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia).
  • Either a slowing of psychomotor abilities/actions or an apparent agitation of these psychomotor abilities. This means that they either have moments that lack purpose and seem to be done because of agitation and tension or there is a significant slowness/retardation of their speech and physical actions.
  • Fatigue and loss of energy.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt every day.
  • Difficulty thinking, making decisions, or concentrating every day. This may be reflected in their grades.
  • Preoccupation with death and dying or suicidal thoughts.

Please note that if your child is suffering from the loss of a loved one and is processing through the stages of grief, it is normal to have these signs of depression. If they seem to be stuck in the depression stage, then it is time to pursue grief counseling to help them along in the grieving process.

However, if they are not suffering from a bereavement or a medical condition that would cause the above symptoms, then they should be taken to a professional for possible diagnosis and treatment of MDD (Major Depressive Disorder).

How to help your child with depression

Depression is not to be taken lightly. Especially if suicidal thoughts are present. The child’s feelings and emotions are real and must be taken seriously. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), suicide is the number two cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 34.[1]

Professional help is recommended if you believe your child fits the criterion for MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). You can take your child to their paediatrician for an evaluation and referral. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, they may benefit from medication such as anti-depressants.

Most professionals do not dispense medication as the first remedy for depression. Instead therapy is the first line of defense against depression, with medication being paired with therapy if the therapy is not enough or the symptoms are severe enough.

Testing

There are assessment tools that professionals can utilize to help in properly determining whether your child is depressed. The three tools used in assessing depression in children are:

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  • The Children’s Depression Rating Scale (CDRS)
  • Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI)
  • Clinical Global Impression (CGI)

Taking your child to a professional mental health counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist can help ensure proper testing and assessment occurs.

Therapy

There are many types of therapy available today. It is important to find a professional that specializes in childhood depression and the treatment of such.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the leading therapy methods in treating childhood depression. For younger children, play therapy is useful in treating childhood depression as children are often able to better communicate through play than conversation alone.

What parents can do at home to help their depressed child

Besides seeking for professional help, there are a couple of things that parents can do at home to help their depressed child:

1. Talk with your child about their feelings in a compassionate and empathetic manner.

It can feel high pressure to sit face to face and ask your child about their feelings. However, going on a walk, playing a board game or playing alongside your child (chose whichever is age appropriate for your child) can allow them to relax and open up about their feelings.

Ask your child open ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no to engage in more meaningful conversations. Never judge while they are being open and honest with you because it will inevitably cause them to shut down and move away from being open with you.

It is okay to allow for periods of silence during the conversations because sometimes the child is processing their thoughts and emotions during your time together. You don’t have to fill the space and entire time with talking as silence at times is helpful.

2. Provide activities that help them relax and de-stress.

For smaller children, there are simple ways to help them relax.

Provide play opportunities that they find relaxing such as coloring, painting, working with Play-do or clay, or playing with sand and sand toys. Again, find activities that interest your child and are age appropriate are helpful in making them relaxed.

3. Limit screen time.

Technology is not helpful in making your child less depressed. It can often be an escape that keeps them from further opening up about their feelings and emotions.

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Limit time in front of the TV, laptop, smart phone, video games and tablets, etc. Any electronics that seem to prevent your child from face to face interactions should be limited. Ask Dr. Sears cites that researchers have found kids who have higher levels of screen time are at greater risk for anxiety and depression.[2]

Provide alternate activities to replace the screen time such as hiking, crafting, drawing, constructing, biking and playing outside, etc. Some children may be so dependent on their screen time as their source for entertainment that they may need you to participate in alternate activities alongside them in order to get engaged in the activities.

You can’t simply tell your child to go outside to play if they are suffering from depression, lack friends and are used to sitting down and playing video games each day after school. Go outside with your child and do a nature hike or take your child to a playground and have fun together to get them engaged in these alternate activities.

4. Promote outdoor time and physical activities.

Encourage your children to take part in activities that especially involve nature such as nature hikes. Do these activities with them to help them engage in the activities. Again this is an opportunity for open conversations to occur and quality time to take place.

5. Help your child when problems and difficult tasks arise.

Assist them by helping them break down the task into smaller and more manageable parts. Children with depression often have difficulty taking on large problems and tasks and find them overwhelming. Helping them by breaking down the task into smaller and more manageable tasks will assist in helping raise their confidence when the small tasks are mastered.

Small tasks mastered lead to bigger tasks being mastered over time. It is a process over time, patience and a willingness to work alongside your child. This does not mean doing the task or taking on the problem solely yourself. Many times all the child needs is for you to break down the larger task into smaller more manageable tasks and for you to patiently talk your child through the completion of these smaller tasks.

6. Help your child reduce life stress.

When children are depressed, they have greater difficulty handling life activities in general. Cut back on activities that cause stress to increase and look for ways to help reduce stress in your child’s life.

7. Foster a positive home atmosphere.

Reduce or eliminate negative attitudes, language and conversations. Also avoid raised voices, passive aggressive behaviors and any form of physical violence in the home.

Make your home a safe haven for your child instead of an atmosphere that is ever volatile (in words, emotions or physically). Make it a calm environment that makes your child feel safe and secure mentally, emotionally and physically.

8. Help your child see the positive in life situations.

Point out the positives in a situation rather than the negatives. Help them see the bright side of any situation.

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Be a model of seeing the positive in life by speaking words that are uplifting, encouraging and positive. Resist the temptation to voice negative thoughts that come to mind as your child can feed off your emotions and words.

9. Believe your child when they talk about how they are feeling.

Listen to them patiently and take their words seriously. Do not discount or minimize their feelings. Express empathy and compassion when they do open up about their feelings. Help them utilize “I feel” statements in expressing their emotions.

10. Keep watch for suicidal behaviors.

Such behaviors include your child/teen researching this topic online, them giving away their possessions and a preoccupation with death.

Seek professional help immediately with the presentation of suicidal behaviors or thoughts. Keep this number on hand and use it when in doubt: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number 1-800-273-8255.

11. Keep all prescriptions, alcohol, drugs and weapons locked and away from children and teens.

This is a given for all children, but even more imperative for children who are depressed as they have an increased likelihood to abuse drugs and alcohol. They also have an increased likelihood to attempt suicide. So keep weapons and tools such as ropes and knives that can used for suicide out of the child’s ability to use.

12. Spend quality one-on-one time with your child.

Make the time during your day, every day, to spend quality time with your child. You may have limited time and cannot provide an hour or more a day to dedicate to one-on-one time with your child, but you should provide a minimum of 20 minutes a day with your child spending quality one-on-one time together. Try the suggested activities listed in point #3.

13. Be an encouragement and supporter of your child.

Show love and not frustration or anger because of the situation and your child’s condition. Help keep your attitude positive so your child can also see the positive.

Provide daily words of affirmation that are not based on end results (such as a grade or a win) but instead praise the effort they put forth. If you praise the outcome, they will be disappointed when their efforts don’t pan out. If they are praised for their efforts regardless of the outcome, their confidence is built based upon something that they can control (the effort they put into things).

14. Help your child to live a healthy lifestyle.

Sleep is a very important factor in your child’s mood. Not getting enough sleep can cause an entire day to be upset. According to Sleep Aid Resource, children between the ages of 3 and 18 need between 8 and 12 hours of sleep each night:[3]

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    Ensure your child is eating a healthy and balanced diet, getting physical activity/exercise daily and plenty of sleep time.

    15. Help your child foster positive relationships and friendships with their peers.

    Set up play dates for your younger child and encourage older children to invite friends over to your home.

    16. Talk about bullying.

    It can be one of the causes of your child’s depression, so discuss their life outside of home and their interactions with their peers. Help them recognize bullying and discuss how to handle bullying properly.

    17. Help your child follow the treatment plan outlined by their doctor, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

    Make sure you know the treatment plan that your child’s health care professional has outlined for child. This may include counseling session recommendations, medications and recommendations to follow through with in the home. Completing the plan will help provide optimal results for your child in the long run. A plan doesn’t work unless it is followed.

    18. Recognize that professional treatment takes time to show results.

    Don’t expect results for the first few weeks. It may take a month or longer, so be patient and understanding with your child.

    Depression in children is curable

    Depression in children can happen for a variety of reasons. It is quite treatable.

    Professional help is recommended if your child can possibly be diagnosed with a depressive episode. There are interventions that can be implemented in a professional setting, at home and at school. The key is having a plan of action to help your child.

    Ignoring the problem or hoping the depression will just go away is not a good plan. Treatment is imperative to curing depression in children.

    The first step is talking to your child’s paediatrician to get the ball rolling. He or she will refer you to specialists in your area that can help your child overcome and conquer their depression one day at a time. With you by their side, each step of the way you will get through it together and it is quite possible for your relationship with your child to be strengthened in the process as well. That can be your silver lining or positive outlook on the situation at hand.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] National Institute of Mental Health: Suicide
    [2] Ask Dr. Sears: It’s a Virtual World: Setting Practical Screen Time Limits
    [3] Sleep Aid Resource: Sleep Chart

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