how a parents affection shapes a childs future
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
March 24, 2024 ·  5 min read

How a parent’s affection shapes a child’s happiness for life

What were your parents like when you were a child? Were they very affectionate? Did they give you lots of hugs and kisses or were they more of the strong, silent type?

There are lots of different parenting styles out there, and whether your mom liked to snuggle you before bed or preferred to show affection in other ways, there’s no doubt that she probably loved you very much. But did you know that the amount of affection children receive from their parents during childhood can have a lasting and profound impact on their happiness as adults?

Hugs Help Your Kids

Child Trends is the leading nonprofit research organization in the United States that focuses on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families [1]. According to their research, warmth in a parent-child relationship leads to higher self esteem, better communication, and fewer psychological and behavioural problems for the child [2].

Their report also suggests that children who get more affection from their parents are more likely to do better in school and are less likely to associate with deviant peers (aka- get in with the wrong crowd) [2].

Mother’s Affection Predicts Emotional Distress

Researchers at Duke University followed almost five hundred babies into their thirties to test the theory that the quality of the mother’s or primary caregiver’s interactions with their child would have an impact on their health and happiness as adults.

The results found that the babies who received high levels of affection had significantly lower levels of emotional distress when they got older [3]. The most noticeable impact was seen on their levels of anxiety – the more childhood affection they received, the less likely they were to have high levels of anxiety as adults.

The Evolved Developmental Niche

Sadly, the wellbeing of children in the United States lags behind that of children in other developed countries. According to researchers at the University of Notre Dame, this is because  “we have forgotten that we are social mammals with specific evolved needs from birth.” [4]

Dr. Garcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at the university, explains that humans have what is called “the evolved developmental niche” [4]. This is the nest of care that humans have for their young that adapts to their child’s needs as they get older. It was shaped over thirty million years ago and modified through human evolution [4].

There are six components to the niche:

  • Soothing, naturalistic perinatal experiences;
  • Responsiveness to a baby’s needs, including sensitivity to the signals of the baby before the baby cries;
  • Constant physical presence with plenty of affectionate touch;
  • Extensive breastfeeding;
  • Playful interactions with caregivers and friends;
  • A community of affectionate, mindful caregivers [4].

Narvaez and colleagues surveyed adults and asked them to reflect on their childhood experiences. Those who reported receiving higher levels of affection when they were kids had less depression and anxiety, were better able to take the perspective of others, and were generally more compassionate [4].

Lack of Affection Leads to Negative Outcomes

Conversely, the adults in Narvaez’s study who didn’t receive high levels of parental affection reported poorer mental health, more distress in social situations, and were less able to take another’s point of view [4].

“Our research shows that when we don’t provide children with what they evolved to need, they turn into adults with decreased social and moral capacities,” Narvaez said. “With toxic stress in childhood, the good stuff doesn’t get a chance to grow and you become stress-reactive.” [4]

These negative outcomes are seen particularly in adults who were raised in an orphanage setting. The brain undergoes many changes during early infancy, and the environment a child is in during that time can have lasting effects on their mental and emotional state as an adult. Children who live in orphanages often do not receive the same amount of attention and physical contact as their parent-raised peers. Because of this, these children have been found to have vastly different levels of cortisol, oxytocin, and vasopressin, which are all hormones associated with stress, emotion, and social bonding [5].

The Love Hormone

Oxytocin is a chemical in the brain that is released when we bond with other people. It also promotes mother-child bonding, and this affection also increases the infant’s levels of the feel-good hormone [6].

The surge in oxytocin is what causes a child to feel more positive emotions, and many researchers believe that this is what is responsible for these kids’ better emotional states as adults [7].

Skin-to-Skin Contact

This is when a baby is placed belly-down directly on the mother’s chest immediately after birth [8]. This is an important time when the mother and baby can get to know each other. 

Babies who receive skin-to-skin contact experience a number of benefits, including more stable body temperature, heart, and breathing rates [9].

These babies are also happier, and have been shown to have improved brain development [7].

5 Ways You Can Show More Affection to You Child

There are many small ways that you can increase your physical connection with your child and show them more affection:

  1. Look them in the eyes. When you are speaking with your child, or they are speaking to you, look them directly in the eye and give them your full attention [10].
  2. Hold, touch, and rock them. Skin-to-skin contact does not have to stop when you leave the hospital [7].
  3. Play with them. Dance with them, or play “attack of the hugging monster” [7].
  4. Make hugging a part of your routine. Maybe you make sure to always give your kid a hug before school, or when they get home, or before bed. Having a routine makes sure you never go a day without a hug [7].
  5. Use affection when you discipline them. Even as you’re talking with them about what they did wrong, make sure to put a hand on their shoulder, and give them a hug after to show them that even though you are not pleased with their behaviour, you still love them [7].