How a Parent’s Touch Can Reassure

Touch can be a powerful means of communication, especially between parents and children. As the authors of a recent study explain it, “the sense of touch develops in utero and enables parent-child communication from the earliest moments of life.”

Maybe this is one reason touch can be so meaningful. It allows children to communicate with their parents before they have any other way of communicating.

But what does a parental touch mean as children get older? That’s what the study mentioned above, by researchers at University of Amsterdam, Stanford University and Utrecht University explored. The researchers were especially interested in whether a subtle parental touch could change the way children perceived unfamiliar environments.

To test this idea, the researchers recruited 138 pairs of parents and children. All of the children were either in late childhood (which the researchers defined as between the ages of 8 and 10) or early adolescence (11 to 14). In the experiment, some of the parents had been instructed to give their children a light touch on the shoulder, after which the researchers measured the children’s levels of vigilance and trust.

For those in late childhood, children who were lightly touched on the shoulder by their parents subsequently paid less attention to potential social threats. Apparently, the parental touch set these children at ease and led them to perceive their environment as less threatening.

For children with social anxiety, being touched on the shoulder by their parents also raised their levels of trust. Paradoxically, the light touch on the shoulder decreased levels of trust among children who weren’t socially anxious.

As children moved from late childhood to adolescence, parental touch appeared to lose some of its power to reassure. Among the early adolescents, the touch on the shoulder no longer made them less attentive to threats or changed their level of trust. According to the researchers, these findings suggest that “that parental touch loses its safety-signaling meaning upon the transition to adolescence.”

That said, the study highlights the communicative and reassuring role of touch in childhood. As the researchers put it, their findings “underscore the power of parental touch in childhood, especially for children who suffer from social anxiety.”

Image: Flickr/MjZ Photography