#40 - Therapeutic Blind Spot
Updated: Oct 20
Most Therapeutic Professionals Gloss Over Our Most Basic Childhood Need – Touch
by KC Johnson
Smith1727 on Pixababy
(This article focuses primarily on the effects of insufficient nurturing for all children, but specifically on male children only because our male dominated societies tend to be at the forefront of the bulk of dysfunctional behaviors -- female children also suffer from incomplete nurturing resulting in other consequential impacts on societies and their emotional challenges deserve a separate discussion as well)
Do an internet search for childhood touch by parents, care providers, and day care teachers. It is hard to find information stressing the importance for physical touch, hugs, and kisses in the development of a child’s healthy sense of self. It is almost considered a taboo, an unspoken area to avoid. Read articles by therapists and psychologists and their descriptions of the causes of behavioral characteristics usually gloss over the most important aspect everyone needs -- generous and ongoing appropriate touch and nurturing throughout a child’s life. Sure, there are references about the importance of nurturing, but the links seldom connect to the deeper causes for our behaviors, that is the degree of nurturing is responsible for the fundamental development of the sense of self -- the driving force behind our behaviors.
Therapeutic treatments often follow more narrow conclusions based only on provable research leaving out intuitive approaches because they have not been studied. Rather than seeing our complex personalities as a blend of inter-mingled aspects that may not fully embrace a DSM-5 official diagnosis, there is often a focus on the individual aspects that predominate research and are more easily quantified. All of these discussions avoid discussing the most important aspect of personality development . . . the Inner Child’s sense of safety in developing the personality. External factors are more easily studied and researchers are continually missing the key starting point for creating personality giving only marginal value to a person’s earliest life experiences.
An example of the current accepted level of understanding about the formation of our behaviors is described in The Cleveland Clinic’s approach to mental health and personality:
What causes personality disorders?
Personality disorders are among the least understood mental health conditions. Scientists are still trying to figure out the cause of them.
* Genetics: Scientists have identified a malfunctioning gene that may be a factor in obsessive- compulsive personality disorder. Researchers are also exploring genetic links to aggression, anxiety and fear, which are traits that can play a role in personality disorders.
* Brain changes: Researchers have identified subtle brain differences in people with certain personality disorders. For example, findings in studies on paranoid personality disorder point to altered amygdala functioning. The amygdala is the part of your brain that’s involved with processing fearful and threatening stimuli. In a study on schizotypal personality disorder, researchers found a volumetric decrease in the frontal lobe of their brain.
* Childhood trauma: One study revealed a link between childhood traumas and the development of personality disorders. People with borderline personality disorder, for example, had especially high rates of childhood sexual trauma. People with borderline and antisocial personality disorders have issues with intimacy and trust, both of which may be related to childhood abuse and trauma.
* Verbal abuse: In one study, people who experienced verbal abuse as children were three times as likely to have borderline, narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive or paranoid personality disorders in adulthood.
* Cultural factors: Cultural factors may also play a role in the development of personality disorders, as demonstrated by the varying rates of personality disorders between different countries. For example, there are remarkably low cases of antisocial personality disorders in Taiwan, China and Japan, along with significantly higher rates of cluster C personality disorders
In the above examples for personality disorder causes childhood traumas and verbal abuses are down the list of importance. It’s like they are searching for genetics and brain changes as a way to minimize the impact parents and care givers have on a young person’s personality development. They give the message that it must be something mysterious like aberrant genes or mis-developed brain formation. NO, IT IS HOW WE TREAT THE CHILD STARTING FROM DAY ONE!
The premise being made here is that our Inner Child during the emotional formative years needs to be experiencing sufficient, generous touching and nurturing in order to develop a healthy personality. Think of generous nurturing as the emotional nutrient most needed for developing a confident, loving, and happy self we all need to face the world of experiences our childhood is intended to prepare us for. This healthy sense of self becomes the lens we use for every interaction. With it we grow emotionally strong, relatively free from the need to judge others and our experiences negatively. Without it, our Inner Child has to develop protective mechanisms that ward off feeling unsafe and insecure.
These tools developed by our Inner Child are like micro-voices that confront experiences that the Child finds uncomfortable, and the chief tool these voices use is judgment, whether internally self-directed or outwardly focused. Each interaction with the world of people builds a little more of our sense of self. It is created by us and it becomes the filtering mechanism our Inner Child uses. It also becomes the filtering tool our adult-self uses throughout our adult life. What fears, attitudes, and experiences we have had in our past sets the behavioral pattern for our adult’s lifetime unless we intentionally altered.
People generally try to avoid painful experiences and as a result our Child avoids revisiting its deepest pain Even therapists and ‘healers’ face their own internal challenges with painful childhood experiences. We search instead for alternative, less direct causes for our later-in-life behaviors. Researchers often center on genetic factors, family stresses, abusive experiences, diets, and a host of other possible reasons for our subsequent depressions, dysfunctional behaviors, and manipulations of other people.
But the core factor we all need for developing a healthy sense of self is the genuine, caring, and consistently appropriate touching, hugging, and attention to the young child’s need to be heard and supported for the unique being that child is becoming. Yet seldom do we see presented any direct connection between incomplete nurturing being the cause for developing unhealthy behaviors. Instead, we are given techniques to mitigate the unwanted behaviors and emotions by basically placing a patch that alters behavior, never really addressing the core issues originating during early childhood.
The most critical need every infant, toddler, and young child has is healthy appropriate touching by parents and care givers. Not just for the brief few days, months, or even years after birth, but throughout the childhood. This is a vital missing ingredient that plays a central role in the formation of our sense of self.
Nurturing physical touch promotes development of young children’s physiological systems involved in regulating emotions and stress responses. Physical touch such as holding and rocking are the most effective ways to calm and soothe a distressed baby; repeated experiences of being soothed when distressed attunes the stress-response system and prepares children’s ability to self-regulate and to identify how to calm their strong feelings, like when they are upset.
Children who have this ability to calm their strong feelings are better able to understand that other people have feelings and thoughts, which can lead to them having more positive relationships, such playing with friends. In this way, nurturing physical touch supports children’s prosocial development (being able to be kind, caring, and helpful). For example, one study found that children whose mothers more often hugged them when they were upset were more concerned and caring about others (Narvaez et al. 2019). (Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Cheng, A., Gleason, T.R., Woodbury, R., Kurth, A., & Lefever, J.B. (2019). The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development. Reflexão e Crítica 32:1
Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels
So why would these positive nurturing touches support the development of children’s brains and social behaviors? One reason is that these types of touches actually wire the brain for social success.
Our deepest attitudes we hold about our true self, our worthiness, becomes the image for our acceptance of the world we see around us. Our sense of self determines our behaviors towards others, affects our happiness, and emboldens us, or not, to explore our world. We thrive with a healthy sense of self and we can be overcome with regrets, self-doubts, and fears when our Inner Child receives inadequate nurturing and appropriate touch that creates a sense of not feeling safe.
The Positive Parenting Project clearly describes the development process:
Touch supports brain development
Babies’ brain development requires interaction with their environment on a sensory level (through touch, sounds, sights, smells, taste). Babies are born with a brain full of cells called neurons which look a bit like pieces of string. By experiencing their environment through their senses, a baby’s brain cells link up into pathways which become knowledge and skills.
Touch is important to children’s emotional and physical health
Gentle touching by a caring adult releases the body’s feel-good chemicals (endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine) and reduces children’s stress levels. This is really important as research shows that exposure to a lot of stress while the brain is developing in the early years can get hardwired into a child’s future brain responses. Also, when children are calm, they are much easier to parent – so a parent-child relationship that includes gentle touch can also reduce parents’ stress levels. Touch helps toddlers identify their special caregivers – the safe adults they can turn to for comfort.
It’s really as simple as that. Yet we are barraged daily with subtle messaging that touch is not okay, especially for young males. Too many fathers rarely provide the nurturing touch beyond early childhood. The norms for being a non-sensitive man get instilled early in life and become more defined as a male child approaches puberty. The roles are fairly rigid.
This is an easy question to ask yourself as a parent, or even as a friend of a male child – “If he decides to wear a dress in public, does that pose a problem for you?” Probably well over 90% of parents, and especially fathers, will strongly object to a son showing his feminine side in public. Again, the social roles are unfairly rigid.
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Numerous studies from various fields have established that touch is vital to healthy adjustment during infancy and also during old age. Physiological research emphasizes the importance of touch to physical and psychological systems (Field, 2003). Attachment research emphasizes the importance of touch in the sensitive responsiveness and availability characteristic of the secure attachment style.
A World Health Organization report (e.g., Richter, 2004) on the importance of caregiver-child relationships as a context for the growth and development of young children throughout the world noted that:
Sensitive and responsive caregiving is a requirement for the healthy neurophysiological, physical and psychological development of a child. Sensitivity and responsiveness have been identified as key features of caregiving behavior related to later positive health and development outcomes in young children. (p. 1)
In a research report by (Kassow & Dunst, 2004) the importance of appropriate nurturing is stressed:
One of the developmental consequences of sensitive and responsive caregiving is secure infant/adult attachment (Bowlby, 1988). Secure attachment is generally understood to be an affectional bond between an infant and an adult caregiver1 that has two elements: (1) the infant seeking out the attachment figure in times of distress and need and (2) the infant having the ability and confidence to engage in activities separate from the attachment figure (Ainsworth, 1989). The development of the attachment relationship is recognized as one of the most important aspects of human social and emotional development (e.g., Lamb, Ketterlinus, & Fracasso, 1992). This is the case, in part, because secure attachment has been found to be related to enhanced cognitive, social, and emotional development throughout childhood and early adolescence (Bukatko & Daehler, 2001; Fagot & Kavanagh, 1993; Hazen & Durrett, 1982; Matas, Arend, & Sroufe, 1978; Sroufe, Egeland, & Kreutzer, 1990).
The organization Supporting Success For Children with Hearing Loss: Self-Concept: Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers describes the sense of self beginning development at birth stating that:
A child’s self-concept begins to develop at birth. It begins with how adults respond to him. Parents and caregivers create a positive emotional bond with an infant through warm and caring interactions with a lot of eye contact and touch. This positive emotional bond with parents and caregivers promotes a child’s healthy self-concept. It is the basis of a relationship in which the child feels the parents’ and caregivers’ love, acceptance, and respect. As the child grows into a toddler and preschooler, her ability to interact successfully with his environment promotes a healthy self-concept.
The bulk of research believes that the sense of self doesn’t begin developing until around 18-24 months. Though this may be a matter of semantics about this formative period, that view flies in the face of common sense. I doubt these researchers would contend that abusive experiences at 6 months such as never being held, or the infant being ignored when hungry, or being wet for long periods of time would have no impact on the infants emotional well-being. The reason for this time gap may be because the emotional security of an infant too young to be studied or able to give researchable feedback is unreliable.
Or it could be that as humans with an Inner Child, many of whom experienced early traumas, we hesitate to acknowledge or avoid the fears and pains in our own lives discounting those experiences as a personal protective response. Perhaps it is possible that whatever self-identity and sense of self we develop for ourselves, we will pursue our careers and approaches to our lives based on that self-identity and emotional need. These life choices may be our attempts to resolve those early fears and love needs.
A supposition presented in this article is that our sense of self is actually a measure of the love we received, i.e., the nurturing and emotional support, during all stages of childhood before we learned our adulthood abilities to respond to life experiences. Our sense of emotional well-being could be directly related to a feeling of safety and security that comes from the degree of nurturing received. It is a sense that shapes all of our self-concepts, views of the world, and our ability to interact with others.
Where else could behaviors develop that drive us to become teachers and healers, users and abusers, violent or passive, business and leadership manipulators, or to commit a life to causes and doing good. These life choices don’t happen by accident, they start forming at birth or before, and they drive our interests and passions, our abilities to be giving or protective with our emotions, and our attitudes about our self-identity.
Most all of us have developed an outer persona reflecting the image we want others to see, and we have an inner persona that is our true sense of self that protects our Inner Child from feeling unsafe and feeling vulnerable. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of these dual sides to our personalities, especially when the internal identity holds memories of trauma too painful to engage with except at our most private moments.
Photo by Adina-Voicu on Pixabay
Our vulnerable Inner Child can be a master of deception protecting itself from any sense of unsafe experiences. Without intentionally helping our Child release the held fears behind our developed behaviors that our Child uses to protect itself from, we will not fully understand the basic dynamics behind our actions. Even professionals who go into the field of studying human behaviors and healing may find it difficult to explore these most deeply held emotions their traumatized Inner Child is protecting itself from.
If We Want Our Children To Grow-Up As Loving Human Beings We Have To Show Them What Love Is
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There is no substitute for touch-based nurturing love as a basis for a healthy sense of self. Parents who never learned to touch because of what they were taught will often withhold the hugging and holding, the patience to let their child explore and learn at their own pace, and to accept their child’s chosen identity.
That is not to say these parents don’t love their child deeply and intensely. It’s just that to develop the fully healthy sense of self each of us must experience the appropriate touching and hugging, the intimate connections by parents sharing time together with their child exploring and playing, and the trust that develops when the child can practice skills and decision-making within reasonable boundaries with the parent’s support. Certainly there are many more factors that go into raising a child like feeding and clothing, giving the child a safe place to live, and keeping the child as healthy as possible, but emotional nurturing is the most important starting at birth.
These other factors do contribute to self-identity and acceptance, but the core, most deeply defining factors shaping the sense of self begin very early with the nurturing touch that tells the child it belongs in the world.
Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. in their course on Child Development & Parenting: Early (3-7) describes simple actions any parent can use to help a child see and learn what love is:
Beyond having their physical needs for food, water, shelter, and hygiene met, young children also need plenty of emotional and cognitive support, love, and nurturing. Adult caregivers should make it a point to express love and affection for their children every day. Doing so helps young children to feel safe, comforted, and included in a warm, bonded relationship. Such feelings of security actually increase children's capacity to learn and to develop mentally and physically.
Caregivers can show love to their children in many different ways. Cuddling, hugging, tickling, or (safely and gently) wrestling can all be used to communicate physical affection. Families can also verbally nurture their children through statements of unconditional love, such as a daily, "I love you." Reinforcing words of praise can be offered any time caregivers notice their young children making a positive choice, displaying a new skill or ability, or being loving towards others.
These are the type of behaviors that help make any Inner Child feel safer, loved, and valued as a person. Children experiencing these loving gestures daily do not grow up needing to abuse others, nor do they develop the need for self-abuse. They will not choose to follow a profession that extracts the loving energy from others by stealing in whatever form, or physically or emotionally abusing, or seeking power over others. A child raised with loving attention, with generous amounts of touch, with fair boundaries, and with patient, calm reactions to life’s events will likely become a teacher or healer. That child will also likely become an ideal parent passing on the loving experiences learned from childhood. This is how we can break the cycle of dysfunctional personalities so prevalent in today’s societies.
And these lovingly raised children will most likely be able to help other adults find ways to meet their emotional needs even into old age. It begins with every child being well-nurtured and it grows from there.
The need for touch and hugging, for someone to share deeper thoughts with, and for someone to care about us does not stop at childhood. It is a lifetime need and the absence in our lives of loving touch and compassion is the greatest pandemic we have -- the emotional isolation from love deprivation.
The physiological effects of loving touch read like a pharmaceutical company’s wonder drug. Touching lowers the stress hormone cortisol, and boosts “feel-good” endorphins, along with oxytocin, the hormone largely responsible for bonding behavior.
In both children and adults, the physiological effects of positive touch include:
Strengthened immune system
Lowered heart rate
Lowered blood pressure
Reduced stress, anxiety and fatigue
It’s pretty clear touch is good for us. But the benefits of touch reach far beyond the merely physical. Babies who do not receive adequate human interaction—and especially loving touch—can suffer later on. They may become depressed and anxious, fail to grow properly, experience developmental delays, and can be prone to violence and compulsive and/or anti-social behavior. Touch deprivation, in extreme cases, can even result in death.
Male on Male Touch . . . Our Society’s Greatest Pandemic and Challenge
The greatest discrepancy our Western cultures have with regard to appropriate touch is with the attitudes towards men who casually share touching with other males. Even when there are no intended sexual over-tones, the message men receive from society, and for boys early in their puberty development, is that touching another male is taboo. It is considered a sign of weakness and a signal to other males that sexual overtones, and especially non-hetero sexual identity, must be avoided at all costs.
And that cost can be the male child and adult isolating themselves from developing emotionally in-depth connections with other males and females. This self-isolation is entirely a response to not experiencing appropriate touch, not being encouraged to share in-depth feelings and thoughts as a child, and hearing the constant barrage of rigid male roles permeating the media. It can be overwhelming to break through these artificial social norms when there has been few opportunities to practice sharing appropriate touch and intimate talk with another person. This pattern for touch tolerance is set during childhood.
Grayson Perry in his book Descent of Man describes these norms this way:
(pgs. 108-109) “Boys grow up steeped in a culture that says that their feelings are somehow different from girls’. Boy have fewer feeling and theirs are simpler than girls’; boys are more robust, they don’t care about things so much. But this downplaying of their emotional complexity is, I think, the aspect of masculinity that we most urgently need to change. Men need to transform their relationship[ with violence, performance and power. That change must begin with their emotions, by allowing boys and men more emotional space. A positive change in masculinity would be a massive positive change for the world. Emotional illiteracy is difficult for boys to deal with, yet they are brought up to accept this…”
Mark Greene provides an excellent in depth discussion about the challenges of touching by fathers to children, adult-to-adult, and even towards other adult family members. In his article, “Why Men Need Platonic Touch,” in the Uplift Foundation Magazine it becomes abundantly clear how conflicted men are about sharing one of the most important emotional needs all humans have.
The Value of Touch
We have seniors in retirement homes who are visited by dogs they can hold and pet. This helps to improve their health and emotional state of mind. It is due to the power of contact between living creatures. Why are good-hearted people driving around town, taking dogs to old folks homes? Because no one is touching these elderly people.
We know the value of touch, even as we do everything we can to shield ourselves from it.
They should have grandchildren in their laps every day, or a warm human hand to hold, not Pomeranians who come once a week. And yet, we put a dog in their laps instead of giving them human touch, because we remain a culture that holds human contact highly suspect. We know the value of touch, even as we do everything we can to shield ourselves from it.
Fear of Judgement
We American men have a tragic laundry list of reasons why we are not comfortable with touch:
We fear being labeled as sexually inappropriate by women.
We live in a virulently homophobic culture so all contact between men is suspect.
We don’t want to risk any hint of being sexual toward children.
We don’t want to risk our status as macho or authoritative by being physically gentle.
We don’t ever want to deal with rejection when we reach out.
Photo by modelnikosmith on Pixabay
But at the root of all these flawed rationalizations is the fact that most American men are never taught to do gentle non-sexual touch. We are not typically taught that we can touch and be touched as a platonic expression of joyful human contact. Accordingly, the very inappropriate over-sexualized touch our society fears runs rampant, reinforcing our culture’s self-fulfilling prophecy against men and touch. Meanwhile, this inability to comfortably connect via touch has left men emotionally isolated, contributing to rampant rates of alcoholism, depression, and abuse.
The socially impose emotional strait jacket on men retards our culture’s ability to advance into emotional maturity
Western cultures pride themselves on their advanced civilizations, yet those advancements are likely behind even the Stone Age cultures when it comes to emotionally nurturing members of their community. Land based cultures tend to be family centered with multi-generations living together giving loving support to all members of their community.
Using the term pandemic is not done casually, we really are in the middle of the most crucial crisis of our times. According to the Oxford Dictionary a pandemic is a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease over a whole country or the world at a particular time. Many countries suffer from the malady of individuals being in emotional crisis from their negligence and intolerance around giving comfort and care to each other throughout all of our ages, but especially into older ages.
Behavioral research emphasize the importance of contingent touch in reinforcement of infant behavior (Gewirtz & Pelaez-Nogueras, 2000). Recently, attention has been given to research examining touch in medical situations for elderly populations. Theoretically, touch should remain important throughout the lifespan, but most touch research has focused on infants or elders (Field, 2003).
But these attitudes extend well beyond just males . . .
The lack of appropriate nurturing affects young female children as well, in similar and in different ways. Poor nurturing, including appropriate touch, support for exploring their world, and accepting their chosen self-identity, damages the young female sense of personal power, just as it does for males. There is a reason females in our societies tend to be subservient to males, they have been denied the support that promotes assertiveness, self-confidence, and leadership. As mentioned at this article’s lead in, another discussion is needed that delves into how the female sense of self is affected by incomplete nurturing.
Another of the greatest emotional tragedies we have in our cultures is our treatment of seniors, especially in retirement. Often they are left isolated from any significant touch, affection, and companionship. And that lack of emotional support often exists for people who have committed offenses against others and endured time in prison as they become outcasts in society. Or what about the people suffering from an addiction who have had life-altering childhood traumas they are trying to hide from, they too are in need of intense support for healing their Inner Child fears.
The list of the ‘excluded’ is uncomfortably long and is simply an indication of just how deeply most ‘non-excluded’ people in our society are struggling with their own sense of self fears. The premise in this article is that at the core of all of our society ills is the nurture-deprived, trauma-laden Inner Child struggling to survive in an artificially imposed set of social standards that are destroying our abilities to heal each other.
Older people need therapy animals to alleviate the lack of touch in their lives. Photo by Ramiro Pianarosa
Rebekka Mikkola in her article “7 Signs You Might Be Suffering From Touch Deprivation” inThe Society for Personality and Social Psychology supports the idea that touch is critically important:
Touch deprivation, or skin hunger as it’s sometimes known, is a condition that arises when we have little or no physical contact with others. This condition appears to be more prevalent in western countries, as we tend to engage in friendly touch less often than in other parts of the world. The rise in use of technology and mobile devices, as well as fears around harassment are some of the reasons attributed to this growing problem. Yet touch is essential for our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. (also go to her TED Talk for an even clearer description of the benefits of touch at https://www.rebekkamikkola.com/post/7-signs-you-might-be-suffering-from-touch-deprivation )
In Closing . . .
Western culture ‘professionals’ too often do not diagnose or attribute the consequences of inadequate nurturing on the minds and bodies of its people. Yet the emotional imbalances set into motion during childhood contribute directly to the physical health imbalances Western medicine doctors try to treat and the emotional challenges psychologists try to resolve. These superficial approaches often result in physical and emotional conditions reoccurring repeatedly.
More so than in nearly every other country, the United States has a population facing loneliness, suicide, depression, addictions, and manipulation of others. We are also a culture negligent in providing full nurturing beyond the infant’s early years. At the core of this withholding of appropriate touch from children is the withholding of touch and physical contact by fathers with their sons. We have left male children ill-prepared to understand their emotional needs or feelings. It’s no wonder that 75% of the major abusers of other people including the wealthy and the corporate types, the committers of crimes, and the regular everyday abusers of others are males.
We can avoid the dysfunctional behaviors perplexing all aspects of our societies just by taking the times and giving the care that complete nurturing requires. If we don’t accelerate our nurturing skills as adults for each other, and especially for our children, then the dysfunctional trends towards manipulative and abusive behaviors we are experiencing will grow.
The therapeutic and psychological research communities can become the leaders in this transition. The fact that so little is now understood about the origins of our behaviors indicates these professionals are ignoring a massive blind-spot in their professional fields. Each of us needs to explore and understand our Inner Child needs. - kc