Hugless Douglas is an endearing story of a bear who wakes up needing a hug. He sets off to find one, but each hug he gets is not quite right – Douglas is big and a bit awkward, so not many creatures are eager to hug him and he finds giving them to be trickier than he thought. Finally, he finds a hug that hits the spot and learns that the best hugs are from those who love you.
One of the things that adoptive parents and foster carers often talk to me about is that their children struggle to have cuddles with them that feel genuine or comfortable. They report their children hug too tightly, or seductively or aggressively. Sometimes they will hug but then complain of being hurt, or that their parent has ‘coffee breath’, and push them away. Some children seek affection only at the times they know their parent is busy and likely to put them off, and some avoid hugs altogether.
Early experiences of abuse can mean a child has never experienced what being in a healthy, nurturing relationship with an adult caregiver is like. Their need for hugs and physical comfort may have been exploited or neglected and they have had to find their own ways to keep themselves safe. They internalised early in life that they were unlovable, and that other people were unloving. When these old patterns of relating are brought into their new homes, it can be hard for parents to know how to respond to often confusing behaviour.
Having nurturing touch is an important part of what helps a child to develop a positive sense of themselves and enhance their abilities to self-regulate and manage their emotions.
Hugging releases oxytocin in the brain, the hormone known to stimulate social bonding, as well as dopamine, the pleasure hormone associated with feelings of happiness.
I work with a family in therapy to help the child learn that it can be safe and enjoyable to experience hugs and nurturing touch with their parents and carers. Giving clear messages about respecting personal boundaries, exploring what this means and moving at a pace that is comfortable for the child is very important. So too, is giving the child opportunities to practice ‘good hugs’ and ‘safe touch’ with their parents, acknowledging that they may not have had much of this in the past. This can be made fun, for example by using a stopwatch to have ‘ten second cuddles’ or using structured play therapy to introduce games involving touch, like ‘pass the hand squeeze’.
Reading aloud books like Hugless Douglas is another engaging way to explore what being embraced is about and what this can feel like. At one point in the story, Douglas hugging the sheep, even though they tell him they don’t want to, is a great opportunity to talk about what personal space means. The final pages contain illustrations of many different kinds of hugs and provide a fun excuse for families to try them out together. Seeing a child giggling with delight as they get their parents to do the sandwich hug, or the back-to-front hug is truly a sparkling moment.