Affection Boosts Brain Power: Why Expression of Parents’ Love for Their Child Matters

Feeling loved and secure is key to childhood development, but did you also know that physical and emotional affection play a part?

Mom hugging young daughter outside


“A hug a day keeps the doctor away!”

That’s what my mother would say before I bounced off to school in the morning. With her petite arms outstretched, she’d bring me close, then release to give what she believed was my daily emotional vitamin.

I always laughed, believing that it was merely an excuse to get a cuddle as she wasn’t a particularly demonstrative person. However, I had to admit that sick days during my school years were minimal.


Research has proven for years that touch is necessary for human survival. Babies in NICU greatly benefit from nurses and volunteers who spend hours holding them. According to the article: Why Touch is So Important in Medical News Today, studies have also shown that the effects of lack of affection in childhood can cause a child to have developmental issues and struggle with relating socially. (source)

It’s important to lay the foundation of body autonomy and consent with your child from an early age. Find more on teaching your child about consent and boundaries.

Touch can “activate particular areas of our brain and influence our thought processes, reactions, and even physiological responses.” One study shows brain scans that reveal how affective touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region associated with learning and decision-making as well as with emotional and social behaviors. (Cohut, 2018)


Several studies show how clearly affection boosts brain power. Child Trends, a non-profit research organization that focuses on improving the lives of children, explains that warmth and affection from parents to their children results in life-long positive outcomes such as higher self-esteem and fewer behavioral problems, which allows students to be cognitively and emotionally available for learning. (Schwartz, 2017)

Related: The Importance of Touch in Infancy and Beyond

The loving touch of a parent is the ultimate calming agent and reduces anxiety. Hugging or even high-fiving your child before school is a way to increase their chances of having a positive day. This results in fewer altercations and an increased ability to focus. My mother as it turns out, was on to something.


Dr. Carl E. Pickhardt states in the article “Adolescence and Physical Affection with Parents” that as adolescence begin the journey of separating from their parents to become more “grown up,” they may choose to give up receiving and giving physical expressions.

While they may miss parental physical contact, during this period, their need to establish independence seems more important to them. This doesn’t mean they don’t still need this form of comfort from their parents as they are facing various social and academic challenges, and are still cognitively developing. 

There are things parents can do to continue offering the support teens need. Providing a lesser form of affection such as a side hug, a pat on the back, or even words of encouragement can be equally effective. Usually as a teen grows into a young adult, her confidence and maturity allow her to receive parental affection once again. (Pickhardt, 2012)

With all of the research and various modalities of proof that parental affection boosts brain power, it’s interesting to consider those in cultures and past generations who found success, yet did not embrace or know the benefits of this practice. 

How were they able to cope without daily hugs, kisses and high fives from their moms and dads?  

As an English instructor and researcher, I have learned that kind and encouraging words can be life changing. Dr. Pickhardt supports the use of positive language when dealing with teens as an alternative to affection. Could they, like teens have relied more upon positive language? 

It’s possible.

Thankfully, parents have this additional tool that can foster success in children. Affection can establish a strong mental and emotional foundation that will last a lifetime.

It makes us all feel happy and loved. When children are happy, their immune systems are healthier, which prevents additional sick days away from school, and they are able to spend more time in the classroom. When children feel loved, they feel better about themselves and have more courage to tackle days filled with academic and social challenges. When they feel believed in, they believe in themselves.  

Although my mother was not a scientist, she was an educator who understood the importance of sending me out every day with the armor of affection. It served as a loving shield against a world that was not always easy for children to navigate.

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