mother holding two children by the water
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
November 28, 2023 ·  5 min read

How a parent’s affection shapes a child’s happiness for life

Parents have a huge impact on their children, starting from the minute they are born and it lasts even long after they are grown and gone. Though there are more concrete things like genetic traits and family traditions, it goes deeper than that. A parent’s affection can actually have a lasting and profound impact on the happiness of their kids, even into adulthood. (1)

Warmth and Affection Expressed By Parents Provides Life-Long Positive Outcomes For Their Kids

A mother’s affection, in particular, has an incredible impact on the future happiness of her children. Researchers at Duke University followed nearly five hundred babies from birth until age 30. They tested the theory that the quality of their interactions with their mother (or primary caregiver) would impact their health and happiness as adults. (1)

The result? Babies who received high levels of affection had significantly lower levels of emotional distress when they got older. This most notably impacted their levels of anxiety – the more childhood affection they received, the less likely they were to have high levels of anxiety as adults.

According to Child Trends, the leading nonprofit in the United States whose research focuses on improving the lives of children, youth, and their families, this goes even further.

The affection shown to children from their parents causes:

  • Higher self-esteem
  • Improved academic performance
  • Better parent-child communication
  • Fewer psychological and behavioral problems

Naturally, kids whose parents are not affectionate feel more alienated, have lower self-esteem, and tend to be more aggressive and anti-social.

The Importance of Hugs

Hugging and physical displays of affection are incredibly important for the healthy development of a child, especially for babies. In fact, hugging makes your child smarter. (3)

A study done on babies in an orphanage found that even just 20 minutes of hugging a day improved their performance on brain development tests.

Hugging also helps you to bond with your child and show them that you love them and they can trust you. Hugging, and affection in general also improves their physical and mental well-being. This is because it releases everyone’s favorite hormone: Oxytocin. (4) A parent’s affection is so important.

A Parent’s Affection and Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a chemical in the brain that is released when we bond with other people. It promotes mother-child bonding and increases the infant’s levels of the feel-good hormone.

In fact, babies who receive skin-to-skin contact experience a number of benefits. (5) These include more stable body temperature, heart, and breathing rates. (6) These babies are also happier and have been shown to have improved brain development.

The Evolved Developmental Niche

Dr. Garcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, explains that humans have what is called “the evolved developmental niche”.

This is the nest of care that humans have for their young that adapts to their child’s needs as they get older. Shaped over thirty million years ago, it has been modified through human evolution. (4)

The six components of the niche are (4):

  • Soothing, naturalistic perinatal experiences;
  • Responsiveness to a baby’s needs, including sensitivity to the signals of the baby before the baby cries;
  • Constant physical presence with plenty of affectionate touch;
  • Extensive breastfeeding;
  • Playful interactions with caregivers and friends;
  • A community of affectionate, mindful caregivers

Narvaez and colleagues surveyed adults and asked them to reflect on their childhood experiences. Those who reported receiving higher levels of affection as a child had less depression and anxiety, were better able to take the perspective of others and were generally more compassionate. Those who didn’t receive much childhood affection reported the opposite. (4)

“Our research shows that when we don’t provide children with what they evolved to need, they turn into adults with decreased social and moral capacities,” Dr. Narvaez said. “With toxic stress in childhood, the good stuff doesn’t get a chance to grow and you become stress-reactive.” (4)

A Parent’s Affection: 5 Simple Ways to Show Your Child More

Unfortunately, children in the United States have lower well-being when compare to other developed countries. According to Dr. Navarez, this is because we have forgotten that we are extremely social creatures with needs for affection starting right from birth. (4)

Thankfully, there are many easy ways that you can show your child more affection, so that they feel seen, heard, loved, and cared for.

  1. Look them in the eyes. Give your child your full attention when they are speaking to you and vice versa. Look them in the eyes while talking so they know you are paying attention.
  2. Hold, touch, and rock them. Skin-to-skin contact does not have to stop when you leave the hospital.
  3. Play with them. Dance with them, play with them, read with them, and generally engage with them each day. If you don’t know what to do, play “attack of the hugging monster”.
  4. Make hugging a part of your routine. Maybe you make sure to always give your kid a hug before school, or when they get home, or before bed. Having a routine makes sure you never go a day without a hug.
  5. Use affection when you discipline them. When discussing your child’s mistake with them, be firm but gentle. Put a hand on their shoulder, and give them a hug after to show them that even though you are not pleased with their behavior, you still love them.

Children have the power to change the world – and so do the parents who raise them. A parent’s affection can go a long way, so let’s keep showing it and watch as that love spills over into other areas of their lives as they grow. After all, a little extra love is just what our planet needs.

Keep Reading: Mom’s ‘nagging’ text about baby’s car seat saved his life in car wreck


  1. The importance of touch in development.” NCBI. Ardiel EL. March 2010.
  2. Oxytocin: Facts About the ‘Cuddle Hormone’.” Live Science. Stephanie Pappas. June 4, 2015.
  3. Skin-to-Skin Contact for You & Baby.” My Cleveland Clinic.
  4. The Importance of Skin to Skin Contact.” Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation.