The one promise I made to myself when my daughter was born is that I would be a better dad to her than my father was to me. Last year she invited me to have a pleasant lunch with her in downtown Seattle. Over that lunch we discussed a wide range of topics – her life for the previous six months without a regular job; my neuroscience research; her impending move to Portland, Oregon; my teaching; her going off to yoga teacher training school, etc.
At one point in our conversation, she mentioned that she thought I was a great dad … until she turned nine years old. I was surprised and curious and invited her to tell me what happened at age nine that transformed me from Great Dad into not-Great Dad, but she couldn’t really put her finger on it. It was all smushed together, woven all through ages 10, 11, 12 … 20 … 25. But I could certainly identify what the precipitating event was. It was estrogen. And testosterone.
It was at age nine, with puberty unfolding relentlessly, that I no longer felt comfortable making non-sexual physical contact with her in ways that I had freely and openly been able to do for nearly a decade. When a caring, competent, protective, nurturing father abruptly stops freely touching you, that’s an unfortunate, disruptive event to body, brain, spirit and to relational wisdom-mind. For daughter and for dad.
Number 2 on the All-Time Hits List
Of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word touch has the most definitions listed. Clearly, touch is an important experience for human beings. Not only that, but if you go looking through the most cited peer-reviewed neuroscience papers over the last ten years, what you discover is that Number 2 on the list is a study published in 2004 in Nature Neuroscience by Ian Weaver and his colleagues … on rats. The title is: “Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior.” Essentially, what Weaver’s group found is that physical nurturing profoundly impacts nature – mothers’ touching, licking and grooming influences the proteins that move and shake and affect which genes become expressed in rat pups.
That’s the upside. On the downside, there’s plenty of evidence accruing that lack of early nurturing contact adversely impacts human pups. But very little has been researched and written about what happens to body and brain in rats and human children when loving, early nurturing abruptly stops. From either mom or dad.
Roots of Autism Are in the Skin
Here’s a recent interesting study suggesting that the roots of autism may be in the skin and that a lack of early non-sexual physical affection could be a contributing factor. This makes a lot of sense to me, both personally and professionally. The skin is the largest body organ and according to Jon Lieff, MD, its cells are super-intelligent; in part because our skin has a huge number of neurons distributing sense receptors all over it – Pacinian corpuscles sense pressure, nocioceptors sense pain, Meissner’s and Merkel’s mechano-receptors sense touch, thermo-receptors sense heat and cold, etc. As those nerves become stimulated over and over during early development – the connections they make significantly strengthen significant parts of the neural network – neurons that fire together wire together. Physical touch then becomes something that feels good and doesn’t generate a lot of stress hormones both early and later in life. Without that early physical contact, people touching us as adults can often make us feel uncomfortable. Physical touch feels threatening as it triggers an HPA adrenal response (the good news is that as adults – while it’s not easy – we can learn to become increasingly comfortable with physical touch).
One important function of physical touch is for significant people in our lives to help us learn to regulate homeostasis. I remember I was once out hiking a mountain trail and came across a young girl scout troop trapped with a nest of buzzing yellowjackets blocking their way forward and a steep rock ledge preventing their retreat. As I pulled one girl after another up to safety, they each spontaneously extended a hug. In the moment, hugging a complete stranger was the perfect thing to do, and it worked immediately to down-regulate their runaway glucocorticoids. In a different context, people would have very likely reported me to the police.
A Momentous Transition
I have little doubt that having your mom or dad suddenly stop hugging and touching you as easily and frequently as they used to is a momentous event in a child’s life. I suspect that because of the sexual overtones our culture generally connects with physical touch, I have never seen anything researched or written about how to skillfully and intentionally navigate this developmental transition. It’s not a topic that regularly finds its way into the pages of Highlights or Parenting Magazine, for example. But just because something makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t mean the best way to deal with it is to downplay it or ignore it. Unless you want to be inexplicably turned into Bad Dad and never really know the fundamental, underlying reason why.