November 16, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Greetings, MindSite News Readers. In today’s parenting newsletter, a few notes on the magic power of parental snuggles, the empathy and hope needed to bring war and suffering to an end, and a directive from Sweden to get our kids outside to play if we want them to be happier and more resilient. Plus: Books for kids who are having a tough time with their mental health.

A parent’s magic touch comforts anxious kids

One of my favorite things about the parenting stage I’m at is the amount of snuggles I get to give on a daily basis. My child is quite young and a good long hug still works to instill calm when she’s upset or trying to will herself to stay awake at bedtime. But that golden touch isn’t something unique to our parent-child relationship. Parents all over the world use a gentle caress to soothe our babies and little ones. It works on grown up children, too. “If I wanted to go to sleep as a child, I would go cuddle with my mom and she would give me piojito, [a Mexican term for a soothing caress],” said Joe Grajeda, 40, who explains that piojito involves using the tips of your fingers to very lightly stroke or scratch a child’s head or skin.  “I love piojito,” he told NPR. I ask my mom now – and my kids – to give me piojito now. I think it’s my language of love.”

Scientists say that special touch is something all of us mammals use on our offspring. It’s thought to trigger the C-tactile fibers under the parts of our skin covered with hair, which results in soothing relief, said neurobiologist Ishmail Abdus-Saboor. As the story explains, it turns out that the fibers, which have sensory terminals that appear to be free nerve endings, are “especially equipped to detect a gentle, stroking caress… and are part of a system triggering the warm, calm and peaceful feeling you have when you’re with people who love you.” At the start of the year, Abdus-Saboor and several colleagues published a paper in Cell that demonstrated the activation of these neurons in mice. Apparently, touch sparks the dopamine pathways in their brains, causing them to seek the cuddle or touch again and again. “These nerves basically have a dedicated, neuronal highway to the brains’ reward centers,” he explained. “So why would you wire a system like this? Well, you know, turning on these neurons is so important for social encounters, relationships, bonding, mating, soothing, calming and stress relief.”

There is some evidence that the nerves may also trigger the release of endorphins, or naturally occurring opioids, in peoples’ brains. But even neuroscientists who are unsure about an endorphin link agree that you rarely need words to calm a grumpy kid: A parental caress may be all that’s needed for children to feel cared for and safe. “Being touched is just a basic need, like having dinner when you are hungry,” said neuroscientist Helena Wasling. “You need to have this touch in order for you to reach a good, steady state in your body. You need it so you can feel safe enough to go out and explore the world.” 

Remaining empathetic and hopeful amid “an ocean of sorrow”

The horrors being experienced by citizens of Israel and Gaza are ones we cannot imagine. Still, amidst the agony and death, there is evidence that untold people in the region, whether Palestinian or Israeli Jew, want the same thing – for the fighting and suffering to end. Maoz Inon lost both of his parents in the October 7 attacks by Hamas; the grief he feels is all encompassing. “When you are swimming in the ocean, you don’t understand how big it is. You don’t see the end, you don’t see the bottom. So that’s how big it is — more than you can understand.” Still, Inon told NPR, the tears he cries aren’t just for himself, but for everyone around him who is suffering. “I was crying, and I’m still crying, for all the innocent victims from both sides that will die,” he said. “And I’m crying for this 100 years of bloodshed, of the cycle of death.”

The long history and current escalation of the generations-long conflict has caused many to wonder if peace is possible. A 2023 Pew Research Center survey, issued and analyzed before the war, found hope diminishing among both Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel for a peaceful two-state solution. Only 35% thought it possible, down from 44% in 2017 and 50% in 2013. It’s a symptom of the lack of faith each side has in each another. Political psychologist Oded Adomi Leshem found in one of his studies that Jewish Israelis and Palestinians tend to underestimate the other group’s desire for peace. 

The lack of trust in one another’s capacity for empathy toward the other “reduces one’s own hope,” Leshem said. It’s also easier to not hope, he added. Expecting conflict, however awful, is what they know. But hope for peace between Israel and Palestine is different and unfamiliar. “If we kind of accept this unpredictability,” Leshem said, “most Jewish Israelis and most Palestinians want to live peacefully between the [Jordan] River and the [Mediterranean] Sea in some form of coexistence when there is safety for all the people … If we take the chance on this uncertain thing — which is called peace between the river and the sea — then this is closely related to hope.”

After losing his parents, Inon said he had a nighttime vision that rustled him awake with tears. “I saw an image of everyone crying,” he said. “Just we all cry — you cry, your daughter cry, everyone. And our tears are healing the wounds from Israelis and Palestinians. And our tears wash the blood.” There is no need for more weapons or fighting or division, he said. “You want to start a new world? We need to cry [for one another]. And then, we’ll see the path for peace.”

What’s the Swedish secret for raising happy and resilient children?

Spoiler alert: It’s nature.

Embrace nature and spend a lot of time in it, Swedish-American parenting expert Linda Åkeson McGurk told CNBC. Get outside, go touch grass, sums up the recipe as my grandma would make it. In Sweden the concept is called “friluftsliv,” which roughly translates to “open-air life.” It’s a charge for children to spend time playing in the dirt and exploring, without too much adult intervention or supervision. Friluftsliv leads to healthy kids and is probably why Nordic countries are some of the world’s happiest, McGurk said. 

It’s so critical that she believes time outdoors needs to be scheduled and protected. And while the more time in nature, the better, it’s not necessary to reorganize your entire life. McGurk advises that you try combining outdoor time with something you already have to do, like walking your child to school, safety and distance permitting, or eating dinner outside. And don’t underestimate the power of a city walk: You don’t have to be immersed in the wilderness for outdoor time to make a positive difference, you just have to get outside. 

Finally, perhaps most importantly of all, don’t let weather dictate whether or not you’ll spend time in nature. Considering that all is safe otherwise, the cold and rain offer fun opportunities to splash in muddy puddles, cool off on a hot day, or build snow mountains and coves. After all, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” the Nordic saying goes.

In other news…

Books that help kids cope with mental health challenges: In the throes of some mental problems, hope for a future worth living vacillates between bleak and impossible. It’s the mental space editor and publisher Lauri Hornik’s daughter, Ruby, found herself heading into in the seventh grade. In search of books featuring young people struggling with anxiety and depression like herself, Ruby read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar only to conclude “this is the grim future awaiting you,” Hornik said. As her daughter’s illness worsened, Hornik told People magazine, she realized there just weren’t enough books to help children and adolescents cope with poor mental health. So, Hornik started publishing them herself. (In the article, she offers a list of the most recent offerings.) Her goal is to publish books that help kids at every age feel hope for their lives after reading them. “That’s big for me. My experience with Ruby made me realize that there are books that are needed and that don’t exist yet. And I have the ability to do that.” 

Want your kids to really be happy? Emphasize collecting experiences over material things, parenting expert Eva Moskowitz told CNBC. “Children need to understand that while money can give them the opportunity to be happy, they can’t consume their way to happiness,” she said. So play with your kids. Take them to a fun show. Spend the afternoon visiting a museum. Lay on the grass and find cool shapes in the clouds. Consistently demonstrating the value of those everyday experiences will increase their chances of being happy as adults, Moskowitz said. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...