Touch is our most basic way of connecting and comforting. A recent study by Eddie Brummelman and colleagues suggests that parental touch can also serve as a safety signal for children.
In the study, children ages 8 to 14 years viewed a series of pairs of faces and had to indicate whether an asterisk appeared next to the face on the left or right. The faces showed either positive, negative, or neutral expressions.
If children saw an angry face and then, on the next trial, more quickly noticed the asterisk in the place where the angry face had been (compared to where a neutral expression had been), the investigators interpreted that as an attentional bias toward threat. Seeing an angry face influenced children to pay attention to the information in that location.
However, when parents briefly and casually touched their 8- to 10-year-old children on the shoulder prior to the task, the children did not show a bias toward threat. It was as if the quick touch reassured children that they were safe. Touch did not reduce threat bias in older children, ages 11 to 14.
In a follow-up task, the investigators had children look at photos of unfamiliar children with neutral facial expressions and rate how much they trusted them. Socially anxious children between 8 and 10 years who had received the brief parental touch rated the unfamiliar children as more trustworthy compared to those who were not touched. Surprisingly, nonanxious children who received parental touch rated the unfamiliar children as less trustworthy. For these children, the touch seemed to communicate, “Be careful, here!” The trust ratings of older children, ages 11 to 14, were not affected by parental touch.
This study is intriguing because it shows that a one-second touch from a parent can influence children’s social thinking. The authors suggest that using parental touch to decrease attentional bias and raise trust could be useful in treating socially anxious children, but it’s not clear whether the subtle differences seen in the study translate into anything meaningful in the day-to-day lives of children.
As a clinician, I know that social anxiety is complicated. It can involve not only a fear of being evaluated negatively by others, but also a tendency to perceive rejection even when it's not there, avoidance of social situations, and social skills deficits that lead to actual negative reactions from others.
Could parental touch help? Maybe. Being less focused on threats in social situations might make socially anxious children more willing to be around others, but that’s certainly not enough. The socially anxious children I’ve worked with need much more than a simple pat on the back. They also need to be able to identify children who are likely to be open to interacting with them and to reach out in positive ways that support on-going play or conversations.
Brummelman, E., Terburg, D., Smit, M., Bögels, S. M., & Bos, P. A. (2018). Parental touch reduces social vigilance in children. Developmental cognitive neuroscience.