We've all heard the stories about babies who fail to thrive because they aren't held enough. In early Victorian times people believed that too much physical contact would overwhelm children with germs and disease, and in orphanages throughout Europe and North America staffers were forbidden to touch the babies beyond caring for their minimum physical needs. Though they were receiving adequate nutrition and medical care, almost all the children died in infancy. In 1920 a pediatrician named Dr. Brenneman made it a rule in his hospital that each baby should be picked up and cuddled several times a day – the mortality rate in his ward fell immediately and dramatically.*
Today it's common knowledge that our babies need to be touched and held, and most parents are only too happy to snuggle their newborns. As they get older and we hear “Aw, Mom” more often, we learn not to be too demonstrative in front of their peers; as they enter the sometimes-prickly adolescent years, we may try to “give them their space” and stop touching them altogether.
This is a big mistake.
Your 17-year-old may look like an adult, and he may be too big to sit on your lap, but he still needs your touch – you just have to adapt your cuddles to suit his new station in life. He might be terminally embarrassed if you call him Snookie and bounce him on your knee (not to mention how hard it would be on your knee), but a casual one-armed hug could make a huge difference in his day.
Not only do we all need affection from our loved ones to prosper, a teenager who isn't getting any physical affection from his family will go looking for it somewhere else. Yes, the hormones are in overdrive during those tumultuous years, but the hunger to be touched isn't exclusively sexual even then. Keeping older kids at arm's length can make it harder for them to be discriminating about when, and whom, they date – they may be so desperate to be touched by someone that they'll take the first person who comes along.
If you have older children, be alert for the subtle (and not-so-subtle) clues that they want to connect. Your child may come and leannnn on you while you're reading or sitting at the computer, or he may run up to you and yell “POKE!,” suiting the action to the word. (They learn this on Facebook. I have permanent bruises.) He may say, “I'm heading to bed,” and then hang around in a marked manner until you make a bit of a fuss over him (because he'd rather die than say, “come and tuck me in”).
Go ahead. Poke 'em back. Grab 'em and hug 'em when nobody's looking. Kiss them on the cheek and tell 'em you love 'em. They will never outgrow the need for your approval and affection.
They might squirm.
But they'll be back.