All people need love, especially kids. And kids who grow up with love develop self-esteem, a good self-image and the means to cope with life's problems, a local psychiatrist says.
"Children need physical affection; they thrive on physical affection," said Dr. Paul L. Whitehead, a child psychiatrist and public affairs representative for the Utah Psychiatric Association."Most parents love their children, but many of them don't show that love physically. Yet, physical affection hugging, kissing, caressing is very important in nurturinga child's emotional needs and promoting a positive bond.
"When they receive physical affection, children have an unmistakable message that their parents love them."
During the past several months, Whitehead and his associates have received numerous inquiries from parents concerned as to the seemingly fine line between physical affection and inappropriate sexual contact.
He said their awareness of the issue has been heightened by the extensive publicity surrounding recent criminal cases for child sexual abuse in Utah courts.
But Whitehead wants parents to know that there's a major difference between appropriate parental physical affection and child sexual abuse.
"It's crystal clear in a child's mind when the parent is showing the type of physical affection associated with real love or when a parent is sexually abusing a child out of an selfish interest," he said.
"Love, and the physical expression associated with it, reflects caring and interest in promoting the well-being of the child," Whitehead explained. "Sexual abuse reflects disinterest or contempt for the child. It is for the purpose of meeting one's selfish self-interest, even at the expense of another person."
The specialist said that physical affection promotes security and significance in the eyes of the recipient. Sex abuse promotes the opposite anxiety, anger and pain.
"One promotes trust; the other distrust," he said. "One promotes calm and peace; the other distress and despair."
Both can have a lasting effect on the child's life.
Whitehead said when a child is sexually abused, there is both an external trauma and an internal trauma.
External trauma results from the child being psychological victimized in a sense, violated, possessed, dominated. He loses autonomy and control, and this creates fear and anxiety.
The internal distress, he explained, is that sexual abuse arouses a sense of basic distrust in those the child should trust the most his parents.
"If you can't trust your parents, who can you trust?" he said.
It may also arouse otherwise dormant, sexual feelings, which create anxiety because they overwhelm a child who's not capable of dealing with them.
"On the other hand, appropriate physical affection from parents, based on love, gives children strength, reassurance and the capability to love others," Whitehead said.
"If children sense a secure bond, love, caring and interest from their parents, it gives them a real foundation to move out into adulthood, which is the primary object of parenting."
Western culture, more than many others, seems to dictate that men be more reserved than women. However, Whitehead said children need as much physical affection from their fathers, as from their mothers. They also need to bond with their fathers.
There is no age that parents should stop showing physical affection to their children, although sometimes it has to be modified. Even mere hugs can be difficult for adolescents to deal with, he said. That doesn't mean, however, that the importance of occasional hugs should be minimized.
"Children need physical affection as much as they don't need physical abuse," the psychiatrist said.