Helping you become all that you are capable of becoming!




Tools for Raising Responsible Children
By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.
H - Hugging Children to Create a Healthy Bond

Introduction to Bonding

Pathfinders work hard at bonding with their children so that they have a sense of security, being wanted, self-worth, and self-esteem. Bonding is accomplished by hugging children, either physically or verbally. Bonding is the mutual emotional attachment between parents and their children. It is the way in which unconditional acceptance and love are transmitted between them. It creates an emotional connection which provides the sense of security and trust in the familial relationship. This sense of being wanted and loyalty to one another is cemented in their mutual on-going physical and verbal hugging. 

Bonding is the emotional intimacy with parents which is the breeding ground for their children's future healthy intimate relationships. The closeness in the bonding is felt deeply between the children and their parents and is reinforced and reflected in their mutual hugging efforts. The transmission of familial ties and a sense of belonging are affected in the bonding process. The children gain a sense of identity, heritage, and tradition through the bonding process with their parents and other members of their immediate and extended families. Physical touching, holding, caressing, cradling, kissing, massaging, and hugging are all external non-verbal ways of connecting in a bonding way. Verbal recognition, encouragement, reinforcement, statements of gratitude and appreciation, verbal expressions of acceptance, love, and closeness are just a few of the verbal forms of hugging which create a bond with children.

Bonding and hugging differ in methodology and technique as children develop over the life span. What follows are just a few examples of the different forms which hugging can take to create the bond with children at different ages in their lives:

1.0. Birth to Toddler Bonding Activities

1.1. Breast feeding

Pathfinders believe that breast feeding is a natural way a mother has of nurturing her child both physically and emotionally. Pathfinders believe that fathers are not to be left out of this process, however. They can lay their babies on their chests in the same cradling ways of breast feeding and give their babies either water, juice, or pumped breast milk to eat so that the tactile and emotional bond can be enhanced between them. Pathfinders believe that mothers who are not able to breast feed can nurture their children in the same physical tactile sense. The body to body tactile sensation transmits a warmth and caring to the children which enhances bonding with their parents.

1.2. Massage and physical touch

Pathfinders give their babies massages after they have been bathed or prior to going to sleep in order to transmit the message of loving acceptance of them and their bodies. Gentle physical touching during bathing, diapering, clothing, feeding, cleaning up, and carrying are important tools of bonding. Rough or brusque physical touching transmits disapproving and non-accepting messages.

1.3. Cradling

Pathfinders cradle their infants close to their bodies. This gives infants the warm, secure, and comforting message of belonging and being wanted. It is at these times that parents can read books, sing lullabies and talk to them. Cradling them while sitting in a rocking chair is a way to sooth them when they are crying to settle them down or help them to fall asleep.

1.4. Envelope of parental sound

When holding their little children, or when talking to them, Pathfinders look at them face to face. They surround them with an envelope of sound, creating an atmosphere of communication and intimacy from their birth on. They explain everything in their children's world and introduce them to their wonders of life. They describe everything which is occurring to their babies and use adult level language at all times, trying not to "baby talk" to them. Words of emotional acceptance, love, and caring are expressed frequently .The children are surrounded by verbal cues of belonging and being wanted to give them reassurance of parental bonding with them. Pathfinders avoid using any negative, derogatory labels, or names when they describe their children in their presence.

1.5. Talking at their level

When Pathfinders speak to their little children, they get down to their level physically so that they are speaking eye to eye. Making eye contact is a form of non-verbal hugging to let them know that they are respected, treated individually, and accepted for who they are. These parents try only to talk with their children at their developmental and chronological level and do not expect them to understand "adult language" nuances and abstractions. They talk only in a loving and caring way with soft tone and soothing cadence. Pathfinders attempt to listen carefully to their children's verbal and non-verbal cues for when they are troubled or worried. They offer empathy and understanding to their children and seek to address their distress. They are honest with them when describing or dealing with problems and are supportive as the toddlers face the harsh realities of life and become fearful, scared, or concerned.

1.6. Meeting their "match"

Pathfinders hug and bond with their children by meeting their developmental "match." They only encourage their children to do those things for which they are ready and capable of performing. They do not expect too much of their children too soon. They only play with their children at their level of development and understanding. They avoid frustrating their children and themselves by requiring them to accomplish tasks outside of their developmental "reach." This shows respect and acceptance to the children. It allows the children to be children and does not require of them to be "adult-like" in behavior. The acceptance of "child-like" behaviors in children is a way to hug and accept them for who they are rather than for what they do. This unconditional acceptance cements the bond between parents and their children.

1.7. Becoming their "own person"

Pathfinders encourage their toddlers to become their "own person." They allow their children to enter the phase in early childhood when independent and autonomous thinking and acting emerge. The acceptance of this change in their children from being overly dependent to being free and different from their parents is a non-verbal form of hugging to let them know that they are still OK, accepted and loved by their parents. Pathfinders, at this stage of development, encourage their children to become good problem solvers by exploring and discussing options and alternatives when facing problems, differences of opinion, or desired behavioral outcomes. This healthy interchange encourages them to feel they can be their "own person" and still be loved and accepted by their bonded parents.

2.0. Elementary and Middle School Years Bonding Activities

Pathfinders continue the bonding activities which are age appropriate from the birth to toddler phase of development. They now add the following behaviors to their hugging and bonding repertoire.

2.1. Private times

Pathfinders find time to have private times with each of their children. They use these special times to share with their children their love and concern for them. Making this time for their children is a non-verbal hug which states they are important and deserving of their parents' undivided attention. These private times are fun times and not just focused on problems or troubles. They can include reading books together, taking walks alone, playing board games, going shopping alone, going to a museum or park alone, having a meal out at a restaurant alone, playing with toys, playing imagination games, or taking rides to nowhere special alone.

2.2. Hugging messages which bond

Once a child is able to stand up independently and able to give and receive hugs, Pathfinders initiate a process of continuous hug giving. Hugs are given as non-verbal or verbal messages for: "good morning" after waking up; "have a good day in school or at work" on leaving home; "welcome home" on getting back from school or work; "I love you" on any occasion as the spirit moves; "Good job" for a chore or homework completed; "Thank you" for something done spontaneously or without being requested; "I am so happy you are my child" at any time;"I forgive you" when accepting an apology; "Trust me" when child is expressing a fear or dealing with problem; "I'll be there for you" when the child needs comforting or reassurance when concerned about a troubling event and "Good night, I love you" when going off to bed.

2.3. Affectionate hugging only

Pathfinders teach their children the difference between an affectionate and a passionate hug. They let their children know not to allow anyone to touch them in a way which makes them feel uncomfortable. This includes their parents. Parents are very clear on respecting the physical boundaries of their children and try never to violate them or to give them confusing non-verbal sexual messages when they are being hugged. They teach their children the difference between a "good" and a "bad" touch and encourage their children to let them know when they have been given a "bad" touch so that it never happens again either by the parents or people outside the family.

2.4. Confidentiality in relationships

Pathfinders provide their children the assurance that their private sharing of secrets and concerns are confidential and will not be shared outside of the relationship. This non-verbally hugs them and lets them know that there is privacy, respect, and intimacy in their relationship with these parents. Parents are clear, however, never to promise to not share pertinent information about the children with the other parent. This helps avoid a split between the parents, which can set up an unhealthy tug of war in the family and can result in triangulation of family members. Keeping private confidences confidential helps the children feel safe with their parents and is a sign of intimacy, establishing a stronger bond between them.

2.5. Respect for individuality

Pathfinders work hard at bonding with their children by respecting their individuality and differences from the other family members. These parents do not punish or condemn their children for being unique or different. They, instead, celebrate with their children these differences. These parents do not show jealousy or competition with children who have talents, competencies, or skills which far exceed their own. They likewise do not show anger, despair, or rejection towards children who are less talented, competent, or skillful than they are. Through verbal and non-verbal hugging these parents show unconditional acceptance and love of their children who are distinct individuals from them. This strengthens the bond between these children and their parents because there are no unrealistic expectations placed on them to perform in ways they are not capable of achieving. Pathfinders help their children to accept themselves unconditionally for who they are, even if who they are is quite different from their playmates, school peers and siblings. This helps them accept any handicap or idiosyncrasy which might make them stand out and appear "not typical" from others.

2.6. Problem solving

Pathfinders problem solve with their children, concerns with academic and conduct progress at school and home life. This problem solving is done in an accepting and empathic way so as to insure that lack of academic achievement and disruptive behaviors do not impede the bonding between parents and children. Pathfinders also do not use children as pawns in the middle of marital warfare or conflict. Couples resolve their problems without engaging their children in them. This insures that the bond between parents and children are not damaged.

3.0. Adolescent Years Bonding Activities

Pathfinders continue with their hugging activities from earlier years and add the following bonding techniques with their children once they reach adolescence.

3.1. "I'll love you no matter what" hugs

Pathfinders recognize, once children reach adolescence, that they often do not receive enough physical hugging or touch from parents. They realize that this can affect the bond with their growing children. For this reason, these parents make a special effort to hug their children, both verbally and non-verbally. These "I'll love you no matter what" hugs are especially needed as their children begin to spread their wings and try to fly outside of the nest which can result in some falling down in the process. The message of these hugs is "I love you for who you are and not for what you do." These hugs bring the wish to remain close and in touch. These hugs are not a clinging plea to never leave home but rather a wish to remain emotionally and spiritually attuned to one another no matter what happens in life to them.

3.2. "Respect yourself" hugs

Pathfinders are especially conscious of the types of physical affection they give their children in this phase of life so as to maintain a healthy bond with them. These hugs are important messages about how their children need to protect their physical and emotional boundaries in relationships with others. These verbal and non-verbal hugs cannot be too desperate or clingy and yet need to be visible and felt. Pathfinders show respect to their adolescent children and encourage them to seek the same respect in their relationships with others.

3.3. "You are still my kid" hugs

Pathfinders give their adolescent children hugs to encourage them to remember that they are still kids and to not try so hard to be adults. These hugs invite children to enjoy life day to day. These hugs rekindle the spirit of earlier bonding between them by their light-hearted nature which is filled with a spirit of fun and frolic. These hugs are messages of gratitude from the parents for their children being the kids that they have become. "I am so happy that you are my kid" is explicit both verbally and non-verbally in these Pathfinders' hugs.

3.4. "Get over here and give me a hug" hugs

Pathfinders make sure to let their adolescent children know that they still need physical contact and hugs from them. "Get over here and give me a hug" as a request from parents informs children of the importance they play in their parents' lives. It cements the bond between them more. It teaches them to keep up with their parents once they leave home, because their parents desire and need it. Pathfinders are not afraid to let their emotional needs be known to their children.

4.0. Adulthood Bonding Activities

Pathfinders recognize that once their adult children have reached the age of complete independence from home and the bond between them takes on a different form. These children can no longer be overly dependent on their parents. They have their own lives to live and may, in time, have their own families to raise. For this reason, the forms of hugging and bonding in this phase of their development takes on a unique character from when they were in the home.

4.1. "You are an adult" hugs

Pathfinders reinforce their adult children's desire and motivation to live fully independent and free from their parents. These children then are given physical and verbal hugs which reinforce this goal. These parents let their children know that they respect their desire to be adults. They give them space to be themselves and do not interfere in their adult business. These parents give their adult children hugs which clearly say " you are an adult and no longer a child." Pathfinders support their children's need to become free of parental prodding, interference, or over involvement in their lives.

4.2. "Let's be friends" hugs

Pathfinders give their adult children hugs which explicitly request them to become adult to adult friends with them. These parents recognize that it will assist the bonding with their children if they convert their relationship from parent to friend with them. This sets up clarity for physical and emotional boundaries between them. These hugs do not foster over-dependency or parental intrusiveness in the lives of their children.

4.3. In-law hugs

Pathfinders work hard at being open and accepting of the chosen partners in their children's adult lives and marriages. They try not to interfere in their children's choices. They use the same unconditional acceptance and love for their new in-laws as they did with their natural children. They hug their in-laws with the same respectful and healthy physical and verbal hugs as they did their own children. Pathfinders do not interfere in the marriages of their children but rather establish a healthy bonding with their new in-laws through healthy hugs.

4.4. Grandparent hugs

Pathfinders provide their grandchildren with hugs which first clarify: "I am only your grandparent and not your parent." These grandparent hugs might be similar to those used with their own children, but with only one difference. The difference being that the grandparents are not trying to replace or compete with the grandchildren's parents for their bonding and attachment. Pathfinders maintain clear physical and emotional boundaries between themselves and their grandchildren, and yet are able to bond with them in a unique way.

Final Word on Bonding Activities
Caution about "overbonding"
Pathfinders are very conscious of the need to monitor when their bonding and attachment with their children has crossed over to "overbonding." Overbonding is when the relationship between children and parents has become overly dependent. This is where parents become over responsible for the children, and the children hand responsibility for their lives over to their parents. This overbonding can result in one parent being so overly concerned for a child that the parent puts these concerns before the needs of the spouse and other members of the family. This overbonding can be the result of parents being so guilt ridden, due a child's early health or developmental problems, that the child becomes smothered with parental attention. This then results in the parents ignoring their own needs or the needs of other family members. Over indulging and spoiling children, making them princes and princesses of the family, can be the result of overbonding. Children in overbonded situations cannot develop a sense of their own personality or autonomy. Smothering children with too much physical affection and attention creates a situation in which they are not expected to accept personal responsibility for their own lives and they grow up confused, irresponsible and unsuccessful. Pathfinders recognize that overbonding results in low self-esteem for children. They are aware that there must be a balance between nonexistent and over abundant physical affection and attention giving. This balance then ends up creating a healthy bonding and attachment between parents and children over their life span.

Obstacles to Bonding
Pathfinders recognize that there are circumstances which can be obstacles to healthy bonding.
Some obstacles to bonding are:
  • an unhealthy pregnancy where parental anxiety can result in the child being blamed for the problems
  • a problem delivery where the mother experiences extreme pain, discomfort, or threat to life or where the mother dies
  • a premature birth where the child is taken immediately from the parents for medical intervention
  • a child being kept for an extended time in an intensive care nursery which prevents it from receiving sufficient touching, holding, cradling, or breast feeding from its parents
  • child being diagnosed with a developmental disability or chronic illness soon after birth or in the first five years of life
  • a child as a baby who has colic or extreme bouts of crying
  • a child who has ADHD which is attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity or has a learning disability which is a problem with perceiving and processing information which is taken in by the senses: auditory, visual and touch
  • a child who needs specialized medical, social and rehabilitative services beginning soon after birth on into adulthood
  • severe behavioral problems with children
  • behavioral problems with children because they are not performing up to parental expectations
  • problems in school and lack of achievement
  • parents have fought through the child in a triangulation circumstance where the child is used as a pawn in the battle
  • child has physical or visual characteristics which are unappealing to the parents
  • negative parental response as the child reaches the natural age to seek independence and autonomy.
Pathfinders are aware of these obstacles to bonding and make efforts to remediate for them if they should occur.

Pathfinders make every effort to stay bonded with their children and they utilize physical and verbal hugs to achieve this. They recognize the need for balance in this effort. They strive to maintain healthy emotional and physical boundaries with their children so as not to be either overbonded and over attached or underbonded and too detached. Pathfinders recognized that through healthy hugging and bonding their children benefit with sound self-esteem and the ability to take personal responsibility for their own lives.

Pathfinder's Hugging and Bonding Assessment

Directions: For each of the specific hugging and bonding activities identified for children's developmental needs circle the ones which you have accomplished for each of your children. Use a different color pen for each child.

Pathfinder's Hugging and Bonding Assessment

1.0. Birth to Toddler Years

1.1. Breast feeding

1.2. Massage and physical touch

1.3. Cradling

1.4. Envelope of parental sound

1.5. Talking at their level

1.6. Meeting their match

1.7. Becoming their own person

2.0. Elementary and Middle School Years

2.1. Private times

2.2. Hugging messages which bond

2.3. Affectionate Hugging only

2.4. Confidentiality in relationship

2.5. Respect for individuality

2.6. Problem solving

3.0. Adolescent Years

3.1. "I'll love you no matter what" hugs

3.2. "Respect yourself" hugs

3.3. "You are still my kid" hugs

3.4. "Get over here and give me a hug" hugs

4.0. Adulthood

4.1. "You are an adult" hugs

4.2. "Let's be friends" hugs

4.3. In-law hugs

4.4. Grandparent hugs

Interpretation: Once you have completed this assessment on each of your children you have a better picture of where you are in terms of being bonded with them. If your bonding and hugging is poor with your children, you might want to try some of the following hugging exercises and strategies to improve the bonding with your children.

Pathfinder Remedial Bonding and Hugging Activities with Children

Body Touching

  • If your child is an infant, lay your naked child on your bare chest and let your bodies touch. Use a blanket or sheet to cover you both if needed for cool air. Lie this way 30 minutes a day for two weeks to a month to increase the physical touch experience between you and your baby.

Simulated Breast Feeding

  • With your infant child who has not been breast fed, pretend you are breast feeding by having the baby lay on your bare chest as you feed with a bottle. This can be done by fathers as well.

Face to Face Game

  • If your child can talk and still young enough, sit face to face and play a game of touching and naming each other's body parts. This encourages body and sexual awareness, and increased physical touching. Make it fun and safe. Do this once or twice a week until you are comfortable in giving and receiving physical touches with your child.


  • Play any game with your elementary and middle school aged children in which the reward for the correct answer or correct move is to get a hug from you and the others in the game. You can use flash cards, checkers, bingo, Scrabble, card games, 21 questions, categories or any other children's board games like Trivial Pursuit, etc.

Tickle Game

  • With your toddler or elementary school aged child, lie on the bed or floor, fully clothed, with your child lying on your chest so that your child's head is close to your head. Whisper and talk to your child. Begin to tickle your child's ticklish body spots and laugh gently and comfortably. Continue to softly tickle and begin to snuggle with your child. Holding on to your child, begin to roll from side to side as you snuggle. Laugh as you say "Wheyey!" or "Whoa!" as you roll. Use this exercise as long as it remains fun for both of you, and as long as the child demonstrates a sense of security with it.

Cradling Game

  • With your elementary and middle school aged children play a game of cradling them as if they were infants or toddlers again. Have them cradle with you on a couch, bed, sofa, rocking chair, or on the floor. While cradling your children rock and snuggle as you sing a favorite lullaby. Do this as often as it takes to help your children relax with your hugs and physical affection.

Memory Lane

  • With children of any age, sit knee to knee on the floor, facing eye to eye, maintaining contact throughout the game. Each of you takes turns sharing a favorite childhood song, nursery rhyme, or story. After each has completed a turn you hug before the other begins. You share old favorites from your own childhood treasured memories. This contributes to cross-generational bonding. This sets up the child with a new childhood tradition to be handed on to the next generation. Do this game as often as it remains productive and fun for you both.


  • With a child of any age, pretend you and the child are caterpillars in a cocoon of blankets or a sleeping bag. Lay quietly, snuggling closely and sing softly to one another. After 15 to 30 minutes, pretend you two are beautiful butterflies breaking out of the cocoon. Throw off the covers and "fly" around the room. Do this as often as you like as long as it remains fun and comfortable for you and your child.

Love Letters

  • With children who can read on their own, good forms of non-physical hugging are love letters. From your place of employment or from home, write a letter of love and affection to each of your children. Have them typed from your office. Put them on your business stationary. In the letters let your children know how proud you are that they are your children. Tell them what is good about them. Emphasize their talents, abilities, strengths, achievements, positive attributes, and other positive aspects about them. Do not use these letters to talk about negatives or problems. Use them to give your children messages of unconditional acceptance and love. Once the letters are written, mail them by the USA mail service so that your children will receive them in the mail box at home. Do not send these letters all at one time to all of your children. Selectively send one letter at a time. Put on your calendar at work reminders to send at least four such letters a year to each of your children. Continue to write these letters as long as they have a positive influence on your bonded relationship with your children. If your writing style becomes stale, go to card shops and buy some of the more meaningful cards in the relationship enhancing section of the card racks.

Compliment Fish Bowl

  • For children who can read and write on their own, a good form of non-physical hugging is the compliment fish bowl activity. Put an empty fish bowl or large container in a central place in a public room of the house. Put a large stack of note paper and pens next to the bowl. During the course of the week prior to the next family meeting have each member of the family write notes of compliments to other family members for things which they have seen that week which they believe the other should be complimented or thanked for. Have the family members place these notes into the fish bowl as soon as they write them. They are asked to write as many notes as they can on each family member to be read at the next family meeting. Prior to each family meeting you check the notes to be sure they are all positive and that each family member has at least three in there. Write up at least three notes per child in the family. Use unconditional acceptance and love themes emphasizing the positive about their being for which you are grateful to have in your life. At the family meeting, the designated leader of the meeting then reads all of the fish bowl notes with first naming to whom the note is written and ending by who wrote the note. After each note is read, it is good to have the recipient be hugged by the note writer. This adds the physical hugging and bonding dimension to this activity. Use this activity as long as it remains productive, fun, and reasonable.

Journal Exercise

Directions: In your personal journal answer the following questions.

1. How well bonded are you with each of your children? What obstacles have existed to impede your bonding with each one? How comfortable are you in hugging and physically touching your children? How comfortable are you in being hugged and physically touched by them?

2. What impact does the level of bonding with your children have on your approach to them? Do you see any difference in the ways you deal with the child you feel more bonded with from your other(s)?

3. What evidence do you have that you might be overbonded with one or more of your children? What variables existed which might have accounted for this overbonding? What do you need to do to reduce this level of bonding and attachment?

4. How do you and your spouse differ in the style and degree of bonding each of you have with your children? What do you think accounts for this difference? How open are you both about the discrepancy between you two in bonding with your children? What needs to be done to correct this?

5. How openly do you and your spouse show physical affection to one another in front of your children? How free are you to hug your spouse with your children present? What is the reason you both are shy in being physically affectionate with one another with the children present? What can be done to change this situation?

6. How comfortable are you with the concept of physical and non-physical hugging? How useful is this concept for you in your bonding efforts with your children?

7. What remedial activities listed in this chapter would you be willing to try with your children? For each one you do use, record in your journal your own and your children's responses to the activity? Also record how you would change it in order to improve it. Then try it again until it ceases to be productive.

8. From you own experience, how closely bonded to your parents were you? Did the bonding decrease or increase over the years? What variables in your life determined how much bonding you had with your parents at any one time?

9. How comfortable were your parents in hugging and physically touching you in a healthy way? How did the way physical touching and affection was handled in your family of origin affect how physically affectionate and hugging you are with your children?

10. How does hugging and bonding affect your ability to be a Pathfinder for your children? How do you think you are progressing in becoming a Pathfinder? What areas are holding you back? Could this need for hugging and bonding be an obstacle for you to become a Pathfinder?