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Affection Critical For Young Children’s Brain Development

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Valentine’s Day isn’t just a day to share romantic love. Experts say everyone needs to feel loved, especially young, developing children. As part of the statewide 5B45 campaign, one Utah couple shares how they try to show individual love to their kids all year long.

Emily and Evan McFarland are parents to three little girls.

“It’s wild!” Evan said. “I’ve played with a lot of dolls, but I’ve actually really loved being a girl dad.”

“I feel like we were just made to be a girl family and I love it! I love having her girl pack,” Emily said. “It’s a dream come true for me!”

Emily describes herself as the mother hen of the family with three darling little chicks.

Although Evan always thought he’d have a son to play sports and fish with, he is the ultimate girl dad, and this year, between his wife and daughters, he has four Valentines!

“So now, I also get individual flowers for the girls, and I try to get them a toy or something like that. We love it,” he said. “They’ve got me wrapped around their fingers.”

This February, Emily and Evan are trying something new.

“I decided that each day I would put a heart on their door with something that I liked about them, or thought was awesome about them, or something that they’ve been doing great,” Emily explained. “They wake up and they’re like excited to see what new thing is there!”

These written affirmations include kind messages like, “Charlotte, you are the most thoughtful and kind girl, and you are so good at caring for others,” or “Isabelle, you are so silly and you make us laugh!”

“They love it — their whole spirit and self just kind of glows hearing something good about themselves,” Emily said.

While it’s sometimes easier to show affection during the month of love, the McFarlands try to create a loving home all year long.

“I think it can be one of the main things that helps them be successful in life and feel confident … they feel secure and feel like they matter,” Emily described.

Encarni Gallardo, executive director of the Children’s Service Society of Utah, says love is critical for a child’s brain development.

“There has been a lot of research done in the past on how affection and touching and loving affects the growth and development of a child,” she explained. “That ability to be close to a human being and to be loved by someone not only affects your brain development, it’s affecting your physical development.”

Gallardo says the first five years of learning are most important for a child.

“There’s nothing more important in the life of a child than a consistent, loving adult,” Gallardo said. “Someone that allows them to try new things, to learn new things, to make mistakes.”

On the contrary, Gallardo says when children don’t feel loved or safe, they stop trying new things.

Love is a universal language, she says, one that children crave.

Emily and Evan have recognized over the years that each of their girls have different needs and love languages.

“That has been something that I’ve had to learn and adapt to as a parent,” Emily said.

Their oldest daughter Charlotte, who is five-years-old and just started kindergarten, feels most loved when her parents talk to her and through physical connection.

“Charlotte loves affection and she just loves to cuddle and be close and to talk and chat,” Evan said.

Their three-year-old, Isabelle, feels most loved when her parents engage with her.

“She’s just like a really fun, adventurous girl, and so if I can get on her level and play with her and engage in her play world,” Emily said. “Isabel just likes experiences. So with her, it’s fun to play games, or play hide and seek, or pretend that we’re dogs or just something silly,” Evan added.

Showing love to 10-month-old baby Olivia is a little more simple.

“Just that face-to-face interaction, make that eye contact and babble, and also just the cuddles and love and kisses.”

Gallardo says no matter what, every parent is qualified.

“It’s not about the gadgets. It’s not about what they have. It’s not about the toys,” she said. “What every child needs, every parent can give.”

Evan admits sometimes it can be challenging.

“I think there’s times, especially with phones — sometimes it’s so easy to be distracted and not kind of give that love and attention,” he said.

Gallardo tells parents to just be present.

“We’re showing them love by listening, by accepting their ideas, by laughing with them, by staying present,” she said.

“Have a conversation [and] make sure that you’re listening to start with,” Gallardo said. “All those things tell them, ‘You’re safe with me. I’m here for you.’”

“I’ve noticed sometimes, it doesn’t take too much to make a big difference and paying attention to what they’re trying to say and going along with it for a few minutes,” he said. “I’ve seen their confidence grow, I’ve seen them be better behaved, and things like that.”

As parents show affection towards their children, Gallardo says their kids will also return the love.

“There is nothing like living life than living it through these children. It’s the biggest and best part of my life — my family,” Emily said. “It’s my greatest joy.”

“It’s really just changed my life,” Evan added.

Gallardo says showing love through physical affection is perhaps more important now than ever during the pandemic, when children can’t hug their teacher or see smiles through a mask.

“We need to reinforce that feeling to these kids that yes, they’re loved and they’re safe, and the world will be okay,” she said.

For more ideas and resources on how to show your children extra love and affection visit 5B45kids.com.

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