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Kate Brown

Kate Brown

The power and importance of touch

As humans, we are social beings, and we communicate far more than you might think through touch. Our skin is our largest organ, and is highly innervated. This means we have very sensitive skin, and through touch we learn and communicate a lot about ourselves and our environment.

In this blog I want to really address the power and importance of appropriate touch for our mental health and wellbeing.


As humans, we are social beings, and we communicate far more than you might think through touch. Our skin is our largest organ, and is highly innervated. This means we have very sensitive skin, and through touch we learn and communicate a lot about ourselves and our environment.

We accept this as read for babies. We all know a baby uses its senses to understand its world. A baby will put most things in its mouth – not just to explore through taste, but also touch, texture and shape.

A baby can smell its mum up to two feet away, and this is why swaddling a baby in the clothing it’s mother wore the previous day/night helps to keep them calmer.

Hearing is thought to be the first sense to develop, and the last to leave us, which is why talking to babies is so important – they know many of their immediate relatives’ voices from being in the womb, and hearing them once born can be reassuring to them.

close up of mother and baby holding hands

And with babies, we have instinctive behaviours.

We will pick a baby up, carry it, hug it, rock it, ‘shhhh’ any crying, talk to it, sing to it, pat it on its back and on its bottom (two highly effective acupressure/tapping points for calming and reassurance). Its very survival depends on the experience of these activities and behaviours just as much as adequate food and shelter.

And as the care givers, we also benefit from this touch.

As the child gets older, and their independence increases, they no longer need us to wash them, dry them, dress them, do their hair, no longer need to be carried and they may cease wanting to hold our hands in the street, and so care giving touches may diminish to zero.

It’s really so very important at this stage to be aware of a reduction in touch for both you and your child. You may like to increase back pats, hand pats, head strokes and purposeful hugs at this time to compensate and keep the daily meaningful touch number up.

teenager leaning on Dad with his arm around her taken from behind to show their backs

As the child gets older, and their independence increases, they no longer need us to wash them, dry them, dress them, do their hair, no longer need to be carried and they may cease wanting to hold our hands in the street, and so care giving touches may diminish to zero.

It’s really so very important at this stage to be aware of a reduction in touch for both you and your child. You may like to increase back pats, hand pats, head strokes and purposeful hugs at this time to compensate and keep the daily meaningful touch number up.

As the teenage years loom, not only have most care giving touches ceased, but increased sexualization means a lot of usual daily peer to peer touches, so common for younger children, also cease

To me, this is the biggest risk factor area for teenage mental health that we can actually easily do something about!

The teenage years can be incredibly lonely and hard, not just because of the huge physical, hormonal and brain changes occurring, but because the societal rules for adulthood are so different from the childhood ones, when it comes to touch (least ways in some cultures). This leaves our teenagers struggling with all their biological changes alone, without the reassurance and compassion of appropriate touch.

As adults we need 8-10 meaningful touches a day. These can be hand shakes or hand holding (both of which activate important acupressure points in the hands), pats on the arm or back (same acupressure points as the back patting of the baby above), hugs, hair brushing, massage, manicure – any and all activities that cause gentle pressure on the skin, and hopefully you can see from this why ‘beauty treatments’ are actually doing so much more for us than affecting our physical appearance. These are all activities we can introduce to our teenagers, teaching them how to acquire their daily touches in societally acceptable ways.

Of course the pandemic has put paid to most, if not all, of these types of daily touches with colleagues and strangers, and even within extended families. Even pre-pandemic, UK residents were deemed to be touch deprived based on various studies of usual social touching, influenced heavily by our culture. Now, I reckon we can assume we’re all in dire need of appropriate touch.

But why? Why should you be bothered about getting 8-10 meaningful touches a day?

older man hugging child while sat on decking

Over time, with little or no physical contact, anxieties around our own worthiness, safety and belonging (to our family, friendship group, larger social circle) arise. Having a sense of belonging is a basic human need, that underpins our sense of safety. If someone doesn’t feel safe, they’re not going to be functioning at their best.

Touch increases feelings of trust, safety, cooperation and compassion.

It increases the release of oxytocin, helps with bonding and boosts the activity of the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system, whilst simultaneously reducing the activity of the stress induced ‘fight, flight or feeeze’ sympathetic nervous system. We spend far too much of our time in the later, which has long term negative impacts on our immune, musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive and hormonal systems.

So touch is a basic human need and one we need to satisfy in order to live longer, happier, healthier lives.

Massage therapy is an important and valid option for satisfying our need for touch. It provides dedicated, compassionate touch, over a set period of time, that help fulfil both the physical and emotional needs listed above. It’s one of the best tools I personally have for maintaining touch with my family members (tween and teenage children, parents) and is used extensively in other cultures in exactly this way.

But a week ago I had a fall and have broken a few ribs. This means I’m out of massaging action for a while. It also means I’m out of hugging action!

My kids are missing their daily hugs, and so yesterday I spent dedicated time with my eldest, brushing her hair. Sitting next to my kids and holding their hand is also something I can still do.

Even though my kids are now 11 and 14, holding their hands whilst walking in the street is still something I instigate. We NEED touch, and I’d love for us all in the UK to normalize behaviour like handholding into adulthood (as is totally normal in other cultures) as a great way of meeting our daily meaningful touch quota.

Teenagers in particular need our touch.

They may be acting out, shouting, behaving in ways that are not conducive to you wanting to spend time with them, but believe me, from the mother of a teenager, touch changes everything.

Just like it did when they were 2 and tantruming.

The teenage brain changes are on par with the toddler ones. And just as toddlers needed our compassionate touch to help them through, so too do our teenagers.

Brush their hair, paint their nails, hold their hand, pat them on the back as you pass them, dance with them in the kitchen. Think back to all the physical contact you used to have, and see what you can bring back.

Sport may also be a useful activity. I think many teenagers and adults turn to (contact) sport to fulfil their touch requirements, and team sports are certainly one way to achieve a sense of belonging through touch and tribe.

And as I said above, I think we can safely assume that thanks to our culture, and the pandemic, we are all currently touch deprived. So be the change you want to see in the world. When you are the instigator of meaningful touch, it benefits you too!

For more research about the importance of touch, check out this website.  https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research

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