The Importance of Hugging

To Hug, Or Not To Hug, That Is The Question!

Valentine’s Day is the day of love. During this day, it is acceptable to show others how you feel by physically expressing your care for them. This includes hand holding, hugging, touching and more. Unfortunately, for children suffering from sensory issues, this time of the year can be extremely stressful and anxiety inducing.

In fact, those with sensory processing disorder may find this additional affection overwhelming, leading to sensory overload, meltdowns and severe anxiety.

The good news is there are steps that parents, teachers and other adults in these kids' lives can do to help reduce the stress of the situation.

To hug, or not to hug, that is the question. Let’s answer it well!

6 reasons to hug

When we hug, our bodies release feel good hormones. These hormones include oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Once these hormones are released into our bodies we can experience feelings of happiness, relaxation, improved mood, and lower levels of depression. But as hugging is permitted again after so long, let’s not lose sight of the difficulties that some people can experience with hugs, or of our responsibility to hug (or not) well.

In the movie Temple Grandin, Temple creates a machine that basically hugs her, she says something like this about the device, “Getting a hug connects something in the brain, you can feel it, and when I’m in my squeeze machine, I feel better.”

Hugs are beneficial for everyone. Here’s why:

  1. Hugs calm us. If you’ve ever felt stressed when you were embraced by someone, it’s possible that anxiety lessened. This is especially true if you have a connection with the person giving the hug.
  2. Hugs create feelings of acceptance. When you embrace someone it usually means you like them. When we hug our children, we are showing them we accept who they are and love them. We hold nothing back when we hug someone. It’s complete acceptance.
  3. Hugs make us feel safe. When you put your arms around your child they feel safe. They may not recognize it at first, but eventually they will recognize that you’ll keep them out of harms way. We want our children to feel safe, so we hug them, showing them we will protect them.
  4. Hugs encourage. Even the strongest individual, whether it be a child or mature adult, when confronted with daunting circumstances, can be greatly encourage by the simple gesture of an arm around the shoulders. It communicates on a neurological and emotional level, it truly is going to be okay, and even if it isn’t, they’re going to be okay. A hug makes us feel like we can do it.
  5. Hugs heal our children. For the child who’s come from trauma, it’s especially important to give out hugs regularly. If you wonder how important hugs are, consider what Dr. Mercola says, “…consider that children who aren’t hugged have delays in walking, talking, and reading.”
  6. Hugs help us grow. Family therapist Virginia Satir said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”

The Effect of Touch for Children with Sensory Issues

When a child suffers from any type of sensory issue, it can affect their brain in a myriad of ways. When it comes to touch, a child may take a light tap on the shoulder as a hard hit, or the sensation may get lost altogether. This is one of the reasons it is so difficult for children with these issues to cope with all the affection and touching that go along with Valentine’s Day. They simply can’t process what is going on the same way others do.

The ABC of hugging!

For children with Autism, their world may be spinning because of sensory issues, a hug may center them and make them feel safe. If they’re in a new environment they may feel more secure with you close by. Just because a child with Autism doesn’t seem like they care about your proximity, they do.

Of course, there are some kids under the spectrum who don’t want to be hugged. In that case you can put your arm around their shoulder, try different approaches to see what works. Never stop trying. One month your child may hate hugs, the next they may accept them and want more.

Here’s three ABC ‘hugging tips’ to help:

  • Ask

Never just hug someone, ask them if it’s OK and would be welcomed first. If they say they would rather not, don’t be offended, it’s likely to be for a very good reason! Don’t look offended and make them feel guilty, this isn’t about you, it’s about their health and wellbeing.

For many children with a sensory issue, discussing the situation and what to expect for the day can be beneficial. Take some time to “practice” hugging and holding hands. While this may seem unusual for some people, for children with sensory issues, it can help them understand and prepare for what may happen.

For younger children, discuss their issues with their teacher. Make sure they understand that the child doesn’t want the same touching and hugging that other students may desire that day. For teens, the situation can be a bit trickier, as they typically want to be “in charge.” For teens, consider discussing how they can show affection in other ways. This includes giving Valentine’s cards, and other things.

  • Be gentle

If a hug is permitted, don’t go ‘full bear-hug’ straight off. Be gentle, be appropriate, be quick. You are communicating love for someone, not trying to crush them for 60 seconds. A gentle hug for a few seconds should be fine.

  • Check

Make sure they are OK, and if not then stop. By asking you are helping them to communicate if they are finding it difficult for any reason and to remain in control.


  • A great alternative might be a starfish hug. This little idea was sweetly introduced on Sesame Street by Julia, the first Muppet with Autism. To do a starfish hug, simply place your hands, palms together, while spreading out your fingers and touching fingertips.
  • Another wonderful idea is a made-up hug like an “elephant hug.”  Simply where move your arms by your nose like an elephant trunk while touching each other’s fingertips. These types of hugs are less overwhelming while still allowing the healing sensation of touch.
  • Get creative and come up with the perfect “hug” for you and your child or loved one. There are lots of ways that we can incorporate a hug with our kiddos, even when traditional hugging won’t do.
  • Each child is unique, and their comfort level can vary from person to person and in different situations. Another easy way to know what kind of “hug” someone wants, is to simply ask.

If you can, take the time each day to give your loved ones a hug… whether it’s a starfish hug or just a good old-fashioned cuddle, your mood and stress levels will thank you, plus you’ll find a deeper connection to your tribe.


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