Using Touch in Positive Discipline

April 5, 2010 at 9:51 pm (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)

This is an article I just finished for the next issue of The Attached Family magazine.  They might edit it to fit the layout, but you get the full, unedited version here!:

A group of 15 moms and dads were gathering for their weekly Positive Discipline class, when one mother shares a moment from the previous week, “My daughter had a fit the other day when I told her it was time to get in the car.”  Every head in the room nods in recognition and understanding.  Another dad commiserates, “My son once threw Legos at the TV because I said he couldn’t watch TV!”  These types of exchanges are shared by the most well-meaning parents; despite even the most positive parenting efforts, kids get mad!  Their immature brains do not have the capability to remain calm while working through challenging feelings.  They “flip their lids” easily; the higher brain functions of the prefrontal cortex, such as logic and reasoning, are not fully able to communicate with the emotions felt in the middle brain.  Not even close.

It helps to understand what is going on in those young minds and bodies so that parents can know the best way to diffuse a tough situation.   Author of the Positive Discipline series, Jane Nelsen educates parents on non-punitive discipline.  She advocates that punishments do not work, and they weaken the parent-child connection.  Of the numerous Positive Discipline tools parents can use as an alternative to punishment, many are centered on the use of touch.  Physical affection is as equally important to older children as it is to infants, and it has an effect on brain chemistry that is conducive to positive behavior.  As Nelsen says, “children do better when they feel better.”

Be Proactive. Parents don’t need to wait for children to come to them for touches, hugs, whole-body-scoops and kisses.  Being regularly physically affectionate with kids of all ages actually helps maintain the emotional connection they share with their parents.  Margot Sunderland writes in The Science of Parenting, “as long as a child wants cuddles, parents should give them.”  Parents should find ways to keep physical affection alive as kids get older.  This keeps the chain reaction of brain chemicals (opiods, oxytocin, seratonin) active and the parent-child bond strong.  When that bond remains strong, challenging behavioral situations decrease and discipline becomes less intense overall.   Some ways of being physically affectionate with kids on a regular basis are:

Cuddles: In younger children the opportunity for parents to get physically close to children presents itself frequently and naturally.  Little ones need lots of picking up, holding and hugging!  As children grow and become more independent and social, opportunities for cuddling naturally diminish, and it becomes important for parents to take extra effort to find ways to physically connect with them.  Reading to a child on the couch or in bed is a wonderful way to get close, as it invites leaning into, lying on, snuggling, touching, and arm-wrapping.  Even watching a TV show or movie together is a great occasion to sit close and connect.

Physical Play: As with other types of touching, physical play also releases positive-behavior-promoting chemicals, such as opiods and serotonin, in the brain.  When played on a regular basis, person-to-person contact games naturally inhibit children’s impulsiveness; kids are able to sit still longer and have an increase in focused attention.  Games such as horsey rides, piggy back rides, wrestling, tag, or even Red Rover involve person-to-person contact, and they all promote the release of positive brain chemicals and bring families closer together in a fun, physical way.

Touching Base: Parents will intuitively touch base with their kids verbally; regularly asking them about their day, their friends, and their interests.  They should take time to touch base with their kids physically as well.  This begins quite naturally when children are very young; they will instinctively take time to explore the world away from mom and dad, and then continually come back to the safety of a parent’s arms to touch base and physically reconnect.  It is important to note that older children need this as well—time on their own to play and be independent, then a physical reconnection with mom or dad.  This helps maintain a secure attachment.  It could be sitting close, leaning in the crook of an arm, or laying on a lap.  It could mean having her hair stroked, or getting a foot rub or shoulder massage, or just snuggling while reading together.

What About Tickling? Interestingly, ticking is not recommended as an effective means to positive physical play.  Tickling, though it may be a customary way for parents to get kids to laugh, can be deceivingly hurtful.  Patty Wipfler, parent educator and director of Hand in Hand Parenting, writes, “The main thing that makes tickling problematic is that children may not be able to say when they want it to stop.”  She states that laughter is an automatic response to tickling, whether a child likes it or not, and tickling may be detrimental in the long-run to the child’s acceptance of positive physical affection.  Wipfler suggests that parents phase out tickling and transition their play into more tussling-type contact that allows children to be inventive and in charge.

Using Touch as a Reactive Strategy. As helpful as positive discipline is as a proactive measure, it is quite often needed as a reactive approach to discipline as well.  Touching calms and reinforces the emotional bond between parents and children.  When children touch a calm parent in a loving way, the chemical balance within their brains begins to be reinstated.  Human brains are equipped with mirror neurons, which are hard-wired to imitate the emotional state of the environment.  It’s why laughter can be contagious, or why people feel sad or cry when they see others crying.  Here are a few approaches to discipline that are based on physical affection:

Hugs: Giving a child a hug when they’re having an all-out screaming fit may not be the first thing that comes to a parent’s mind.  Probably, more likely is the temptation to scream right along with them!  But a warm, secure hug given during a moment of emotional chaos works miles in the right direction; physical contact from an adult’s mature body helps calm the immature one.  Restoring the chemical balance in a child’s brain is the first step towards having a rational conversation or solving any problem together.

Connected Conversations: A huge part of positive discipline is about listening for understanding.  Effective listening involves showing empathy, validating a child’s feelings, and demonstrating active listening skills.  Every day, parents have opportunities to communicate with their children and connect with them with words; to express an understanding of what they’re going through and what they’re feeling.  Going one step beyond the verbal connection is adding the element of touch. Parents can make their words even more effective when they simply get down on their child’s level and hold hands.  Similarly, a gentle hand placed on a child’s shoulder makes spoken words more impactful.  It nonverbally tells a child, “I’m here for you,” and brings a subtle addition of physical connection to everyday conversations.

Quieting the Senses: Some children may become overly-stimulated by being touched too much or too irritatingly.  As described in The Out of Sync Child, by Carol Stock Kranowitz, this “tactile defensiveness” may trigger frequent or intense melt-downs.  For these children, it helps to have a quiet place to go to play or work without the risk of uninvited touching from overly-physical siblings or exuberant pets.  For extra-sensitive children, some time alone does a world of good, until an understanding parent is able to reconnect with them with an appropriate touch or hug.

Deep Pressure: Consequently, there are certain types of activities that involve applying a sensation of deep pressure to the body and are very physically stimulating.  For some kids, this is a welcome sensation and helps to relax an overly excited mind.  For many people (kids as well as adults), a deep tissue massage is pleasant as an ultimate stress reliever.  Other, unconventional ways of delivering extra pressure and sensation to soothe children’s frayed nerves may include ball pits, enveloping bean bag chairs, or weighted blankets.  Some kids even like to be rolled and unrolled in and out of carpets because of the even pressure that swaddles their bodies.  When children receive the sensory input they crave, their minds and bodies are better able to communicate effectively.

So if a child hurls Legos at the TV or throws a fit when it’s time to get in the car, it’s nothing personal!  It’s all about brain chemistry and emotional connection, and sometimes the very best thing a parent can do is offer a soothing, calming, connecting, touch.  Most parents do know that giving kids physical affection is a great tool on its own for strengthening parent-child emotional bonds.  And many parents may be familiar with the philosophy of Positive Discipline; that it is an attachment-friendly way to teach kids responsibility and internal guidance.  But what parents may not realize is that when physical affection is combined with positive discipline strategies, parenting takes on a new level of effectiveness.  Parents and kids are able to communicate nonverbally as well as verbally, enhancing their interaction and strengthening their relationship even through the toughest of times.

Kelly is an associate editor of The Attached Family, an API Leader, and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor.  She lives and works in Portland, Oregon with her husband John and two children, Elia and JJ.

Touching” moments:


  1. Jane Nelsen said,

    Kelly, What a wonderful blog!
    Some people may think that hugging a child is “rewarding the behavior.” They don’t understand brain chemistry and that the hug can be followed by “teaching” what the child cannot receive when upset.
    As you know, a new Positive Discipline theme is “Connection before Correction.” Of course, people not familiar with “correction” from a Positive Discipline point of view, may not know that correction does not mean lectures or punishment. It means that soon after connection a child is open to Positive Discipline methods such as focusing on a solution.

    • Kelly said,

      Thank you, Jane! I love the “connection before connection” concept, and I agree that it can take some time understand how it is applied non-punitively. It’s so important to really be able to embrace positive discipline!

  2. Take Time For Training said,

    Kelly, I love your blog. I’m going to put a link to it on my website, Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    • Kelly said,

      Linda, thank you for your comment, and thanks so much for the link! 🙂

  3. Jan Morris said,

    Hi Kelly,
    I am facilitating a class on communication next week and this article is so terrific. I am thankful for all the wonderful ideas and explanations that you bring up in this blog. I think we naturally seek out that closeness and connection with our children and it’s so rewarding to see how it really develops healthy relationships and encourages positive responses to discipline between child and adult.
    Jan Morris

    • Kelly said,

      Hi Jan, I’m glad you found this article useful! I love being able to share positive discipline with as many other parents as I can. I agree that it is so rewarding in so many ways, for both parents and children, and I want that for everyone!

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