Brainy Parenting

Inside: Hugging your child can lead to life-long positive outcomes for them and reduce the harmful effects of stress, but you need to hug like this.

One morning a while back, my toddler tackled me in a bear hug. As his pudgy arms clung to my neck, I felt my shoulders relax, and my jaw unclenched. The stress of the moment melted away, and I felt fully and deeply connected to my child.

But then I glanced at my oldest, now a teenager, sitting on the couch.

And my stomach twisted with an uncomfortable thought: When was the last time I hugged her like that? I couldn’t remember.

My mind jumped to my other kids, 8 and 6, who were upstairs playing pretend in their room. I racked my brain, trying to think back to our last hugs.

Quick squeezes and pecks on the head, but I couldn’t recall more than that.

Bonus: As a bonus for joining my weekly newsletter, get a free printable that will help you strengthen your hugging habit and make sure your child gets all the powerful benefits that great hugs can provide.

The Importance of Hugging Your Child: 6 Powerful Benefits

As a Certified Parent Educator, I’m trained on the science behind hugs and the benefits of hugging your child.

And yet, I’d gotten so caught up in the go-go-go of daily parenting life that I’d slipped into a bad habit of quick half-second hugs to say good morning or when my kids headed out for the day.

So I went back to review my notes on exactly how a habit of hugging your child for several seconds impacts them. And I uncovered both short-term and long-term benefits:

  • A parent’s affection shapes a child’s happiness for life – Several studies have shown that warmth and affection expressed by a parent to their child results in life-long positive outcomes for the child. That includes higher self-esteem, better parent-child communication, and fewer psychological and behavior problems.
  • A parent’s affection protects a child – Parental warmth and affection can protect a child from the harmful effects of stress, leading to better mental and physical health outcomes for the child.
  • A parent’s affection increases a child’s empathy – When a child receives parental warmth and affection, they’re less likely to experience depression and anxiety as an adult, plus they demonstrate a greater capacity for empathy and compassion.
  • Hugs promote bonding – Warm, affectionate contact like a hug increases oxytocin, which is a hormone in the body that promotes bonding in a relationship and facilitates feelings of trust between humans.
  • Hugs reduce stress – Scientists have also found evidence that oxytocin can reduce the levels of stress hormones in the body and promote feelings of relaxation.
  • Hugs boost your mood – After an increase in oxytocin, the body releases serotonin. You’ve probably heard of serotonin before because it’s known as the “happy chemical” because it boosts your mood.

To add to all that, I know that if I want nurture a loving parent-child relationship that will last into the teenage years and beyond, the time for nurturing that kind of relationship is now.

So I decided to renew my commitment to hugging my children – truly hugging them, not just quick squeezes.

My go-to solution? The Hugging Challenge.

Parent hugging child shows the importance of hugging your child

The Science Behind Hugging Your Child

The Hugging Challenge works because it’s based on the science behind hugs and the science behind behavior change.

Before we get into the specifics of how the Hugging Challenge works, first here’s a quick recap of what research tells us about great hugs:

  • How long you hold on matters – When you hold a hug for several seconds, oxytocin and serotonin start flowing. Those are the chemicals that promote bonding and reduce your stress, plus they boost your mood. Science hasn’t given us a definitive answer yet on exactly how long a hug needs to last to get those benefits, but the author of The Happiness Project discovered research indicating that six seconds is where the magic starts to happen. In other words, if you want to nurture your bond with your child, a super-short hug won’t cut it. Hold on until you start to feel relaxed.
  • How often you hug matters, too – How many hugs do we need a day? Research shows that just one hug a day can improve your mood and decrease conflict in the relationship afterwards. Researcher and author Dr. Sara Gottfried says that in order to reap the full benefits of the oxytocin that hugs can stimulate, you need to give or receive eight hugs a day. Eight hugs a day of seven seconds adds up to 56 seconds. That means that in less than a minute a day, you can boost your child’s mood (and yours) plus strengthen your bond.

To add to that, world-renowned psychotherapist Virginia Satir who’s known as the “Mother of Family Therapy” was famous for saying this:

“We need 4 hugs a day for survival.

We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance.

We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

Virginia Satir

The Hugging Challenge also builds on the science behind behavior change. For example, below you’ll get a visual cue to serve as a gentle, physical reminder of the goal you set to give your child great hugs. Because when you’re trying to stick to a habit, research shows that a visual cue can remind you of your intention when you’re most likely to forget it.

But here’s the best part: Giving your child several heartfelt hugs a day can be a keystone habit that will nurture your parent-child relationship in a deep way. Keystone habits are special because they kick off a chain reaction, influencing several aspects of your life at once. Translation: You can focus on just one keystone habit, and you’ll experience several positive impacts.

Here’s a quick example of how a keystone habit works:

“Take, for instance, studies from the past decade examining the impacts of exercise on daily routines. When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed…[For] many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit†

† This site is reader-supported. When you buy through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

In my personal experience and in my work with families as a Certified Parent Educator, taking that one simple step of saying “yes” to a healthy hugging habit ends up improving your relationship with your child as a whole.

You’ll feel more connected, and you’ll likely find that you have more patience with your child. And because connection breeds cooperation, your child may start to listen more and be more cooperative.

Related: How to Make Your Child Feel Absolutely Loved: 75 Positive Words for Kids {Printable}

How to Take the Hugging Challenge

Think back to the last couple times you hugged your child. Were they quick squeezes hello or goodbye? Or did you hold on long enough to feel your child relax into you?

To strengthen your hugging habit and make sure your child gets all the powerful benefits that great hugs can provide, try the Hugging Challenge for one week.

This is something I do once in a while to reconnect with the importance of hugging my child, and it works like magic. It’s easy and quick so I can fit it into my busy day, and it gently breaks a “quick squeeze” hug habit, replacing it with a whole-hearted hug habit.

Here’s how the Hugging Challenge works:

  1. Promise yourself. Set a personal goal to give your child eight great hugs every day for a week.
  2. Say it. Say your promise out loud or write it down to make the commitment official: “I will hug my child eight times today and every day this week.”
    • This is called an implementation intention, and hundreds of studies have shown they help you stick to your goals.
    • To get the full benefit of your implementation intention, be as specific as you can. For example, you might list specific times you plan to hug your child, like this: “I will hug my child eight times today and every day this week – once when they wake up, before every meal, anytime we say goodbye, at bedtime, and a couple more spontaneous hugs.”
  3. Track it. Grab the bonus Hugging Challenge tracker at the end of this post, and use it to keep track of your hugs and mark off one box for every awesome hug you deliver.
    • This is a visual cue to help you form the habit.
    • Keep your tracker somewhere handy but visible, like in your back pocket, next to your phone, or taped to your steering wheel.
  4. Hug your child. For every hug, make sure it lasts at least 6 seconds or until you start to feel relaxed.
    • If you want to recalibrate yourself during the first few hugs, you can count in your head while you hug your child, but just for fun instead of your typical second-counting phrase like One Mississippi, two Mississippi… or One one thousand, two one thousand, you can try One I love you, two I love you…
    • Important: While hugging your child is beneficial for you both, the point is not to force hugs on anyone. Just as you probably aren’t always in the mood for a hug, your child sometimes may not want a hug either. You can ask a simple question like “Can I have a hug?” or “Hey, you got a second for a hug?” to remind your child they get to decide. Or as another option, you can use this genius solution to put your child in the driver’s seat on the kind of affection they want.

Related: Here’s Why I Will Never Force My Kids to Hug Anyone – And What I Do Instead {Printable}

Mom hugging a child

20 Fun Ways to Hug Your Child

If you want to add a dash of fun and playfulness to your Hugging Challenge and delight your child at the same time, surprise them with a new kind of hug.

A while back, my kids and I had a blast inventing a few new ways to hug each other, so we sat down and made a list, adding in all the other types of hugs we’ve ever heard of, so that we could share the full list with you.

Every hug in this list may not be a good fit for every family, but it sure is fun to try them all out and see what you like best!

  1. The Long Hug – This is your garden-variety hug, but make it last 6 seconds or more.
  2. The Sandwich Hug – This hug needs two adults to make a “sandwich” with your child in the middle. Call out your child’s name and add the word “sandwich,” like “Oliver Sandwich!” then one adult stands in front of your child with the other standing behind, and you both put your arms around them and hug.
  3. The Deep Breath Hug – When your child is upset, a hug paired with deep breaths can help them calm down. While you’re holding on, take deliberate deep breaths. Odds are, your child will follow your lead and take a deep breath too, which will help calm them. (This is called the Chameleon Effect – a human unconsciously mimicking the behavior of another.)
  4. The Rocking Hug – As you’re hugging, rock your child side-to-side. (My toddler especially likes it when I also say, “Mmm mmm mmm!” timing one “mmm” with every rock.)
  5. The Side Hug – This works well if your child is busy doing something because you can sidle up next to them, put one arm around them, and squeeze. For an extra boost of connection, add in a cheek kiss!
  6. The Heartbeat Hug – This is another hug for when your child’s upset. Guide your child’s head to rest where your heart is so they can hear your heartbeat. Some research indicates that when humans are in proximity, their heartbeats synchronize. If you’re calm and your child isn’t, hearing your heartbeat might help them regulate their heart rate to match yours. (The fancy term for this phenomenon is interpersonal synchrony.)
  7. The Bear Hug or The Whole-Hearted Hug – Throw your arms wide and put your whole heart into that hug.
  8. The Catch Me Hug – Open your arms and encourage your child to run and jump into your arms, then hold on.
  9. The Reverse Hug or The Back Hug – Tweens and teens typically like this one because they get to pretend they’re too cool for a regular hug, but they still get the benefits of cuddling with you. To try it, stand behind your child and throw your arms around them.
  10. The Scoop and Hug – Walk up to your child and surprise them by scooping them up into your arms for a hug.
  11. The Lap Hug – Pull your child into your lap for this hug.
  12. The Love Blanket – Younger kids love this one at bedtime! When you go to hug your child good night, lay on top of them without putting all your weight on them. For guaranteed giggles, call out “Attack of the Love Blanket!”
  13. The Group Hug – Call out “Group hug!” and open your arms to any family members who are nearby. The bigger the family, the sillier this hug gets.
  14. The Kissy Hug – As you’re hugging your child, pepper them with tiny kisses until they giggle.
  15. The Hug and Twirl – End a hug by twirling your child around in a circle for a few extra seconds of connection.
  16. The London Bridge Hug – Play “London Bridge is falling down…” but when the bridge catches your child, hold on for a hug.
  17. The Dance and Hug – Fire up a song from our love songs for kids playlist, then dance with your child while hugging them. Research shows that when kids move their bodies to a rhythmic beat, they get a big dose of happy – and the same goes for adults.
  18. The Spooning Hug – For a special bedtime hug, lie down next to your child and spoon them with an arm around them.
  19. The Massage Hug – As you’re hugging your child, rub their back in soothing circles.
  20. The Hug Monster Hug – Make monster sounds and stomp around, calling out “Here comes The Hug Monster!” When you find your child, unleash your inner love monster and hug them. As an alternative, you can act like a robot and call yourself “The Hug Machine.” (Side note: If you’ve never read the book Hug Machine with your child, it’s delightful!)

Get Your Free Printable: The Hug Tracker

Use this free Hugging Challenge tracker to strengthen your hugging habit and make sure your child gets all the powerful benefits that great hugs can provide.

  1. Get the free printable. Join my weekly-ish newsletter and as a bonus, you’ll get the printable! Just click here to get it and subscribe.
  2. Print your Hugging Challenge tracker.
  3. Keep it handy and visible, like in your back pocket, next to your phone, or taped to your steering wheel.
  4. Hug your child, aiming for eight 6-second hugs a day. On your tracker, mark off one box for every awesome hug you give your child.

Here’s a sneak peek of your printable hug tracker:

Preview of printable: Hugging Challenge tracker

Your Turn

What are your thoughts on the importance of hugging your child? Share in a comment below!

Kelly Holmes, author and Certified Parent Educator

I'm a mom of four, a Certified Parent Educator, and the author of Happy You, Happy Family. I believe if you want a loving parent-child relationship that will last into the teenage years and beyond, the time for nurturing that kind of relationship is now. The good news? All you need is 10 minutes a day. Start here »

This post originally appeared on Happy You, Happy Family