There’s a difference between smothering your kid with affection, and being a hugger.
Is it possible to overdose on closeness? Of course it is. But that doesn’t mean that one of our best tools for closeness—hugging—should be undervalued as “clingy” or “smothering,” either. When used at the right times, hugs are powerful: they can give a sense of strength and security.
For this brief article, allow me to speak only about us women and mothers. (Because not only am I woman, it often feels as though accusations of overly affectionate parenting are aimed at moms.)
If a hugging mom sticks to her kid like glue, or adopts on the attitude of a scared and fretful mother hen most of the time, it’s not hard to see why her children might distance themselves from her rather than embrace her. This rarely happens on purpose, of course. Often, this happens when a mother has emotional wounds or deficits from her own childhood that she hasn’t fully worked through, and is instead attempting to fill these gaps by giving extra or extreme attention to her child. But, sadly, that kind of over-the-top sentiment can lead children to become either emotionally tired and anxious, or sometimes even aggressive. Either way, the resulting affect is often one of avoiding intimacy.
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I am currently on a maternity roller coaster. And it feels like my children –an eight-month-old son with separation anxiety and my daughter in the middle of her terrible twos–are in the driver’s seat. Not only that, they are pushing all the buttons possible; they are squealing, “Weeeee!” as they accelerate rapidly only to hit the brakes so suddenly that they start crying. I, as the passenger, however, am trying to keep my balance, not to scream, and not to get sick. The goal is to stay calm so that I can help control and manage their emotions … and still love my job as mom after a whole day’s ride. Sometimes I step off feeling like a pro. Sometimes I step off and immediately search the kitchen cabinets for a teleportation machine.
Despite those moments of crisis, there is one thing I will never refuse my children: hugging and holding them. I want to separate their actions from who they are, so that one day, even if they make the greatest of great follies, they know they can always come to me and will not be rejected. They will be hugged, and loved.
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When I’m feeling particularly stressed, I often think about Psychologist Harry Harlow, who conducted an experiment on monkeys with surprising results. The test was focused on the mother-child bond, and its effect on the psycho-physical development of a small child. The researcher divided newborn monkeys into two groups. The first group of babies grew up with a fake wire mother, and the other with both the wire mother and a fake soft cloth one. All other conditions were equal, and both contraptions had artificial breasts which provided food. All the monkeys ate similar amounts, but the ones growing up with the wire mother had digestive problems, stomach and intestinal disorders, and were aggressive. Some even had psychological issues similar to humans, such as difficulty adjusting to new conditions, or stuck in a constant state of stress. The wire mother, it seems, was not a calming presence.
But when the newborn monkeys had access to both the wire mom and the cloth mother, they spent seventeen hours a day in continuous contact its the soft form, and only one hour a day feeding from the wire mother. In moments of danger, when stressed or afraid, they only ran and clung to the soft, nice to touch mother. What’s even more interesting is that a short while later they had regained confidence and were stress-free again.
As a result, Dr. Harlow put forth a thesis that a mother who satisfies physiological needs of a baby, but is unemotional, is insufficient. And that’s something I like to remember on a day to day basis: being an unemotional provider isn’t providing your child with everything they really need.
According to what is now called “attachment theory” (thanks to a paper authored by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby), attachment is a close relationship between the infant and caregiver, usually the mother, which develops during stable, continuous interaction. It is neither an obvious attitude nor a simple one to spot and understand. Despite what you might think, though, stable attachment often does not come naturally, but rather requires work and constant adjustment of your heart’s compass. But it is doable!
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So here’s what I’m really getting at: A mother who is a safe haven for her child will create a unique bond with him or her, and that child will be more likely to enter the world happier, with a feeling of security, and often higher self-esteem. It’s not something that can be bought in a store, or found while doing the laundry. It’s something us moms need to balance in our day to day lives … with patience, compassion, and, yes, hugs. So don’t wait for tomorrow, I say start the tenderness revolution in your home today!
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