Written by Kelly Heath (intro by La)

My sister Kelly Heath is a child play therapist… she’s one of those people who is, has been and always will be phenomenal with children. When she was a little girl when asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ she would always answer ‘a mom!’ (being South African) and that’s exactly what she does best. She is an amazing mum to three (ages 2, 5, 7).

From time to time she is going to share some parenting words of wisdom with us.

Being in the love month of February, I asked her to share with us the importance of love & hugs for children…



Photography by :Debi Brett photography

photography : Debi Brett photography

It was a chilly morning in mid-December, as we were attempting to get through the final five minutes of the getting-ready-for-school routine amidst the search for a mischievous elf, constant toddler requests for more advent chocolate, complaints about an itchy angel outfit, and the general hustle of the season, and my six year old sprawled herself across the stairs, stamping her feet and screaming because her brother was playing with a toy that she wasn’t playing with but didn’t want anyone else to either, and her sister had looked at her funny, and she didn’t want to wear her coat, and her tummy was sore, and I was a ‘horrible mummy’…and…and…and…and every part of me was ready to join in her tantrum. And then she added, amidst her shouts, “And my hug jug is empty and nobody has filled it!” There it was. It wasn’t about the toy. Or the look. Or the coat. Or her tummy. She was empty. She needed refilling. I took a deep breath, (tried to ignore my overflowing guilt trough), slid onto the step next to her, and scooped her onto my lap. Her shouts turned to sobs, as she let all her sadness out. After a few minutes of just holding her, I whispered, “I’m so sorry I forgot to fill your jug, I’m going to have to stick you to me so I can hug you all the way to school to make sure it’s full to the top today okay!” She giggled. Her jug was filling. I helped her put on her coat even though she’s old enough to do it herself, and we gave each other an extra 10 squeezes before we all piled out the door and ran to school.

We’re all born with an invisible hug jug (and other buckets and bowls I’ll chat about another time) that need filling. I’ve learnt that when my children’s hug jugs are nearing empty, the best way they can tell me is by whining, tantruming, hanging on my leg, back chatting, being defiant, and losing their listening ears.

We all know that a hug makes you feel loved. But hugs are wondrous things. They don’t just make you feel loved; scientists have discovered that hugs help your child grow healthier, smarter, and more emotionally resilient. Hugs reduce anxiety and calm an emotional overload; they are a great pressure valve. Pressure valves is a term I like to use to describe moments in your child’s day that help your child release emotional steam. An embracing hug has the ability to gently let all your child’s ‘bothers’ melt away. Hugs help boost esteem, they build trust, and make your child feel connected.

Research shows that hugs increase oxytocin – the body’s natural happy chemicals. Hugs reduce stress hormones in the body, balance the nervous system, strengthen the immune system, and stimulate physical growth. Oxytocin released by a hug even makes wounds heal faster (that’s why a hug and a kiss on your little person’s scrape is the best medicine!!).

In fact, scientists have discovered that our brains are wired for love. We thrive and function at our optimum when we feel loved and receive nurturing touch. In fact love and affection actually physically shapes our brains and impacts on our brain growth.

In the 1980s and 1990s studies were done on children in Romanian orphanages. Scientists discovered that although the children’s basic physical needs were met the emotional neglect and lack of physical affection and love the children experienced not only had a significant impact on the children’s emotional and mental wellbeing but also on their physical brain development!

Psychotherapist Virginia Satir suggests we need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance and 12 hugs a day for growth.

Have you ever counted how many hugs you give and receive in a day?? In the few hours before and after school and work, squeezing in 12 hugs can be a challenge! (Trust me I’ve been counting!) But goodness, if a hug good morning, a hug goodbye, a hug hello, and a hug goodnight only gets my kids (and me!) to survival level I’m definitely putting in the effort to squash a few more squeezes into our day!

And then there’s the challenge that as our kids grow and become all legs and arms and our schedules and theirs get filled, and parents become embarrassing, hugs can easily become awkward or forgotten.

But hugging your teen is just as important as hugging your toddler.

All of the biological and emotional benefits of hugs work for teens just as they do for toddlers.

As our children grow for some reason so does an unspoken boundary that hugging your teenager may be inappropriate. But, in the adolescent years, children are the most vulnerable and most in need of their parent’s affection. Rather push through the awkwardness than leave your teen to fill their need for affection elsewhere.

If hugging isn’t part of your day to day life with your tween or teen just start small … a hand on their shoulder when you say good morning, a quick hand squeeze and smile as you pass each other at home, and as that becomes a more natural habit throw in a big mama-bear hug and laugh with them about how different it feels from when you could scoop them up and jelly huggle them when they were little!

So add 12 hugs a day to your endless to-do list, but put it right up at the top. It’s for you as much as it is for your little people. Today, see how many hugs, like proper scoop-onto-your-lap-hold-until-he-squirms-away-then-hug-a-little-longer kinda hugs you can squeeze into your day.

Happy hugging!

X Kelly
(BA Honours Psychology & Post Graduate Masters in Play Therapy)

follow her on Instagram : @parentinggracefully

coming soon: www.parentinggracefully.co.uk