By Thea Blair
I first noticed how effective touch was in resolving children’s conflicts and emotional issues during the 14 years I taught a mixed age pre-school in my home. It began as a way to manage the behavior of toddlers who just could not get along with their peers or were having a “melt-down.” My intuition told me that they were out of their skill range: they were overwhelmed or over-stimulated. I would hold them over my heart as if they were infants and discovered this was much more effective than any form of “time out.” Later, I saw miraculous results using other forms of gentle touch with older children, too. I began experimenting with either comforting or playful touch. Sometimes I would put a hand on the shoulders of two children having a conflict, sometimes I would hold a child who was sad or angry. Sometimes I would offer them imaginative back massage stories or bounce them on my knee. It was during this time that I began to adapt verses and songs into massage routines. I was amazed at the results: my caring touch was resolving difficult situations much faster and easier than verbal communication alone.
One situation stands out as miraculous: it involved a 5-year-old boy whose mother had moved away. Even as he grieved for his mother, he showed his anger to me. His eyes carried a glint of distrust and challenge. He never lost an opportunity to undermine my work with the class. He was clever and he would change the words of verses or blatantly disclaim what I said. For months I tried to make a connection to this child. I felt such compassion for his pain, but I did not know how to establish a relationship of trust. Then, one day as we were sitting on the floor during circle time, he did one of his contrary maneuvers. Without thinking, I did what I would normally do with a younger child. I scooped him up and placed him on my lap. I was stunned by his response. His relaxation was so palpable that it felt as if he melted right into me! After that he treated me with a warm respect. On occasion he slipped back into defiance; playful touch dissolved the defiance.
Why was touch the key that unlocked the door? I looked into it and found research that revealed two reasons. The first is that nurturing touch stimulates a hormone called oxytocin. I like to think of it as “Ahhh…xytocin.” It fills us with the sensation of well-being and an emotion of security. It is the “warm fuzzy” feeling, it is the “being in love” feeling. With oxytocin everyone is a potential friend. Oxytocin is a hormone that soothes our nervous system. Research has shown that it reduces stress and anxiety. In my opinion, to properly understand the role of oxytocin we need to have a basic understanding of stress and the stress-related hormone called cortisol.
So, let’s look at the physiology of stress. First, something threatens your survival. This could be pain, a loud noise, an argument, or an important test at school. What is your body’s response? The adrenal gland secretes a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol stimulates the fight, flight, freeze response. The blood draws away from the normal, everyday business of digestion and immune system; it draws away from the frontal lobes of the brain which is the seat of our reasoning and creative thinking. It floods the large muscles of the arms and legs, readying one for fighting or running away. Cortisol promotes separation and competition – everyone is seen as a potential enemy. This is intended to be a short-term, immediate survival response. If it becomes a chronic condition it literally makes us violent, sick, and stupid. Because of the disturbance to the digestion, it is also linked to obesity.
Now, nature is wise and provides an antidote to cortisol. This is the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin and cortisol function opposite each other: when one is high the other is low. I think of it as the Yin and Yang of survival. There is survival by competition (cortisol) and survival by cooperation (oxytocin). Does this mean that cortisol and competition are bad? I don’t think so. There are times when we must set to a task alone, when we want to test our mettle, when we need to stand up for what we think is right despite what the group thinks. No, I believe it becomes unhealthy when the balance is lost, when the only measure of success is “more”, “better”, and “faster.” The idea that “might makes right” is a cortisol response which leads to greater and greater weapons of destruction. “Looking out for number one” is also a signature of cortisol imbalance. Ultimately, the greatest indicator of cortisol imbalance is fear, as the basis of our thoughts, our feelings, or our actions.
Why is nurturing touch so effective in restoring the balance between oxytocin and cortisol?
Now we come to the second reason that touch was the key that unlocked the door: touch is our very first sense to develop and it is our primary language to convey connection and belonging, safety and security. We are social creatures and belonging to a family or a group is very important to us – it’s hard-wired into our survival. We congregate for pleasure, we collaborate for mutual benefit. What is the highest form of punishment? Banishment, isolation. If a person doesn’t feel like they belong or are accepted by their family or group they experience incredible stress. And, because touch is the language of belonging, a prolonged period without touch is in itself stressful. And now we see how cortisol can easily get out of balance: separation brings stress which brings cortisol which brings more separation and more stress. How can we break the cycle? How can we stimulate the secretion of oxytocin? By using any language of connection. Remember, touch is our primary language of connection and belonging. Touch stimulates the secretion of oxytocin which, in turn, creates more connection.
Kerstin Uväs-Moberg, M.D., Ph. D, author of The Oxytocin Factor, is a recognized world authority on oxytocin. When she was asked, “Are there ways that people can increase their oxytocin levels in daily life?”, touch was at the top of her list. She said,”Although some are thinking about developing oxytocin drugs, I believe the absolute best thing to do is to activate your own oxytocin. Your body knows how to handle that oxytocin. Touch is very important. Getting massage is helpful. Interactive touch with human beings is best, but it doesn’t have to be limited to human beings. Touch happens between people and their pets.” This could help explain why therapeutic dog visits in hospitals are so effective. Don’t we associate touch with dogs? I often wonder what our culture would be like if we touched our children – and other loved ones – as much as we touch our dogs.
I don’t know what ratio of oxytocin to cortisol constitutes a healthy balance. But I imagine that it can’t hurt to have a surplus of oxytocin to offset the many stresses of modern life, so I do everything I can to keep oxytocin levels high in myself and in my children. I practice language and communication styles that are connecting. I plan activities that are inclusive of family and friends such as outings, or crafts, or parties. And especially, I make sure to offer my children massage. My son likes foot massages and shoulder rubs. My daughter likes the story massages and she likes to wrestle. I know that by doing this I am practicing “preventative medicine.” And it’s working! Still, there are times when they become defiant, argumentative, disrespectful, cranky, moody, or, in the case of my daughter, weepy. I have trained myself to see this behavior as an indication of needing nurturing touch. As soon as possible I offer them a massage. I am always amazed and grateful to witness their attitude and behavior shift from one of conflict to one of cooperation. Massage is a well-used tool in my “emotional first aid kit”!
I no longer have my home pre-school. I was so excited about this discovery that I became certified in Pediatric Massage Therapy. I now work with parents and teachers bringing awareness of healthy touch through Family Massage and Peer Massage in the Classroom. I am also a substitute teacher in grades 1 – 8 and all the teachers I work for now ask me to bring Peer Massage. The students love it. Just like my own children, they become calm, focused, and friendly which makes my job easy and fun. In fact, learning about oxytocin and our need for touch has changed my life.
Email Thea: firstname.lastname@example.org