4 Ways to Comfort Your Child Without Words

When your kid is sad, lonely, or discouraged, you’ll search for exactly the right thing to say. Sometimes, a gesture like warming him up (literally!) is the best way to make him feel loved and protected.

Happy Mother and Son in Kitchen with Cookies Priscilla Gragg

People subconsciously associate physical warmth with emotional warmth. This link harks back to infancy, when a baby learns to connect the warmth of being held and fed by his parents with feeling safe and cared for. (Experts call that loving bond a secure attachment, and studies have shown that it also makes a child more likely to have other close, trusting relationships throughout life.) “Although we have no memory of being breastfed or held in a baby carrier, the positive response to heat becomes hardwired into our brain,” explains John Bargh, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale University and author of the new book Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do.

The next time you need to reassure your child, try one of these simple soothers based on the psychology of “social thermoregulation.”

Turn up the thermostat.

A toasty temperature makes kids feel closer to the people they’re with. In one Dutch study, 4- to 6-year-olds were given a bunch of colorful stickers and told that they could share some with a friend. Children who were in a warm room (70 degrees) were more willing to share their stickers than kids who were in a cool room (60 degrees). An added twist: Only those kids who’d been found to be securely attached to their parents shared more stickers in the warm room. This is further proof that the unconscious association between warm temperature and emotional warmth is established so early in life, says Dr. Bargh. 

Serve soup or hot chocolate.

“Rationally, it doesn’t make sense that drinking or holding something warm could affect our behavior, but there is a strong connection between the body and mind that plays out in all these different ways,” says Dr. Bargh. He and others have conducted studies in which half the participants were first asked to hold something warm, such as a cup of hot coffee, and half were asked to hold something cold instead, such as a cup of iced coffee. The participants had no idea that this was part of the study. Then they were put through various tests that measured how they felt about the participants and other people. In every study, the subjects who had initially held hot coffee were more likely to have warm feelings toward others than those who had held iced coffee. 

Snuggle with your child, wrap him in a blanket, or give him a heating pad.

Neuroscientists have found that a part of the brain called the insula activates in response to both kinds of warmth: when a person touches a heating pad or when he texts with family and friends. Dr. Bargh and his colleagues have also found that a different specific section of the insula becomes active both when a person holds something cold or when he’s treated coldly or betrayed by someone in a game. 

Keep these little strategies to yourself.

Otherwise, the natural effects are less likely, says Dr. Bargh. If you tell your child that warming up will make her feel better after a bad day, she might resist. (Seriously, how could a blanket make a difference when her friend was mean?) Just give her a hug, and tell her that you love her and missed her all day.