The sense of touch develops in utero and enables parent-child communication from the earliest moments of life. Research shows that parental touch (e.g., licking and grooming in rats, skin-to-skin care in humans) has organizing effects on the offspring's stress system. Little is known, however, about the psychological effects of parental touch. Building on findings from ethology and psychology, we propose that parental touch-even as subtle as a touch on the shoulder-tells children that their environment is safe for exploration, thus reducing their social vigilance. We tested this hypothesis in late childhood (ages 8-10) and early adolescence (ages 11-14) in 138 parent-child dyads. Parents were randomly assigned to touch or not touch their child briefly and gently on the shoulder, right below the deltoid. Parental touch lowered children's implicit attention to social threat. While parental touch lowered trust among socially non-anxious children, it raised trust among those who needed it the most: socially anxious children. The effects were observed only in late childhood, suggesting that parental touch loses its safety-signaling meaning upon the transition to adolescence. Our findings underscore the power of parental touch in childhood, especially for children who suffer from social anxiety.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-93
Number of pages7
JournalDevelopmental Cognitive Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019


  • Parental touch
  • Social vigilance
  • Social anxiety


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