This blog post has been coming for many years. I’ve even drafted it several times. But for various reasons, it never made it to being published. Part of that is that it starts on a horrible, no good, very bad day.
On a day in October, when my son was four, we had a really horrible day. We’d been having lots of bad days. He didn’t listen. He argued. If I gave him a consequence for his actions, he did something else to make it worse. I would send him to his room so I could take a moment and breath and clean up after he broke something. He would go to his room and knock down his dresser onto the floor. He had abused the dresser until it broke and I put his clothes in a huge plastic tub instead of buying more furniture we couldn’t afford. At the time, I didn’t realize he was neurodiverse, but these struggles should have been a big hint. These struggles led to what I now call, Hug Therapy, but at the time it was the Hug Experiment.
How it started
On this day, he was in his room, where I had sent him. It wasn’t really supposed to be a punishment, it was just that sending him to his room while I regrouped had seemed like a good idea. I don’t remember the details of the mess, but I remember I needed to clean up something my kids had broken/spilled/destroyed and it felt safer to have the kids out of the room. But when I went to his room, he was again flipping over furniture and the trash. He was raging and angry. In desperation, I grabbed him and hugged him. It was a firm hug. An occupational therapist would even refer to it as “deep pressure” as I didn’t just hug him, but I kind of pressed him into his mattress during the hug. That hug was perhaps the longest hug of my life. I hugged my son for 15 minutes straight, until he was ready for the hug to end.
The Good Mommy Handbook
During that hug, I explained that the “Good Mommy Handbook” said that I could hug him into being good. Before you go shopping, no that book doesn’t exist. But saying I had a voice of authority telling me to do this seemed like a good idea at the time. I hugged him and hugged him. I told him I loved him and that there was nothing that he could do that would make me not love him. I acknowledged that the move we had made 9 months before had been a hard adjustment. I told him I knew it was hard to be the middle child. It isn’t easy to have a big sister to gets to do everything first and a baby sister who is so cute she seems to take all the attention. It isn’t easy to be four. It isn’t easy to have to figure out how to be a bigger kid instead of a toddler. We hugged and talked quietly until my son told me he was ready for the hug to stop.
Keeping a Schedule
After that, I put my son on a hug schedule. On day one, I hugged him almost every hour but that changed to every 2 hours fairly quickly. Why every 2 hours? Because that’s how often OTs recommend doing your sensory protocol. That is because the effects of a sensory diet wear off after 2 hours. But that also means that for 2 hours after getting the right input, your brain works a little differently. I wanted to rewire my kid’s brain to be happier. So a frequent dose of hugs made sense. This is why I say it is therapy and not just hugs. I also hugged him extra when he was misbehaving. Anything that previously would have led me to give a consequence led instead to a hug. Sometimes very firm hugs. Some hugs were short and some were long. I always tried to hug him until he let go.
I kept a few notes on how this went. Within just a few days, I could see the difference in my son’s behavior. Less fighting with his sisters. Less destruction and more focus. He was not an instant angel, but all our power struggles had stopped and that was a big deal. The more days I gave the hugs out all day, the better things got.
I also made a point to spend more one-on-one time with my son and got my husband to do that, too. With 3 kids, it can be hard to give everyone one-on-one time, but we worked on it. All those feelings about being in the middle weren’t cured by a few hugs, we had to work on making sure that he had what he needed from us. And we worked on hugging the other kids more too. Hugs are good for everyone, even if they aren’t struggling.
By the eleventh day, my notes say my son slept better. Because we had fewer power struggles and fights, I had time to read him more books at bedtime. Bedtime was going much better. And not only that, but he was sleeping better. After a month, he no longer asked to sleep in my bed unless he had a nightmare, and his nightmares had gone from frequent to rare. To me, that was huge. It was a sign that we had not only calmed his waking mind, but his subconscious was also feeling better.
Keeping it going
For months, I kept hugging my son every 2 hours. But at some point, I did gradually hug him less, spreading those out because we were busy. These days, I still try to start our day with a hug and ask for random hugs when we are having a bad day. It has been more than ten years since we started the “Hug Experiment” and I have no regrets. It may be the best parenting choice I ever made!
So, if you are struggling with a child with out-of-control behavior issues and you don’t know what to do, try your own Hug Experiment. Start hugging more and see what happens. What do you have to lose?
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.