Kris’ Corner: Hand Holding

August 1, 2023

Let’s talk for a minute about handholding. No I don’t mean holding hands with your partner, or anything like that. I mean holding hands with your child.

Often, when a child is learning to walk, or when they’re a “newer walker” a parent is holding their hand as they walk. Sometimes they can walk independently, but understandably is steadier when holding an adult’s hand. When the child is a little bit bigger and you don’t have them strapped in a stroller or shopping cart, you might ask (read here: mandate) them to hold your hand while walking across a parking lot or in a store. You do this to keep them safe, right? But what if the child didn’t necessarily have that in some of their formative years? Or what if that was the only real time they felt safe with birth family…was when they were holding an adult’s hand? Maybe the parent wasn’t emotionally available in any other way than to hold the child’s hand.

My point is this…sometimes kids from trauma like to hold an adult’s hand much later than a neurotypical child might. I would venture to guess (because it’s not something I tracked at the time) that my older, neurotypical boys probably stopped holding my hand willingly at about five years old. That doesn’t mean I still didn’t insist on it when we were in potentially dangerous situations, but as they got a little bit older and I realized they were not going to run out in front of a car or would look before crossing the street, etc., I figured out I didn’t have to hold their hands all the time…so it stopped.

But now I have a nine year old who still often grabs my hand when we’re in a parking lot, or a crowded store, or a busy amusement park…really anywhere there are crowds or there is potential for danger. It’s not just my hand he holds…he will also holds his dad’s hand, and the hands of his older brothers if they are there. At first it really surprised me, but then I realized it’s because he’s looking to regulate himself and to feel safe. For whatever reason, he’s feeling a little dysregulated or a little ill at ease in those moments. And so he holds our hand until the feeling passes.

When he first continued doing this beyond the age of about six, I was a little worried about it…and as I always do, I tried to figure out what it meant and why was he doing this? And is it really weird? And I also, to be honest, worried about what other people think. And sometimes that still crosses my mind, because at this point, it truly might look a little weird to people who don’t know us. My child is not small and I am not tall; I tapped out at around 5’2”, and at nine years old, he is rapidly closing in on 5’ tall…so it probably does look a little funny. But I know that for the benefit of him, I have to put aside those concerns and any speculations that others (read: strangers) might have. I’m doing this for my child, and not for anyone else who might be watching. If they want to judge, that’s their issue. If they want to ask why he’s so big and still holding my hand, that’s pretty gutsy first of all, but I would just tell them that he wants to and it’s not a big deal.

Believe me when I say: I realize he looks like he’s about 12 years old, holding his mom’s hand…but I also know it’s possible that at the age of 12, he will still be holding my hand…and that’s OK. I have to be ok with it, so he will be ok with it. And here’s why it is ok: it’s not hurting anyone, and in fact it is helping. We’ve worked long and hard to get him to advocate for himself, and to express what he wants and what he needs in a healthy way that people can understand. And when we’re walking along, and he takes my hand, that’s very directly telling me, “I need you right now. I don’t need you to say anything or do anything… I need you to just be.”

And I don’t know for sure, but I would venture to guess that it’s also his way of saying, “Thank you for being here for me, and for being safe.” I also know if I asked him why he was holding my hand, he wouldn’t be able to verbalize it…and that is also ok; it’s difficult for many of us, even as adults, to be fully aware of why we do what we do. In this instance, he is still getting the help with regulation he needs.

So I don’t know if any of this applies to your situation…either currently or it in the future, but I hope that it put you at ease and helped you to know that it’s really not strange or unusual… It’s just another way your child has been rewired through trauma and if you can get past the awkwardness you might be feeling about holding an older child’s hand, you can instead be thankful that it shows he’s connected to you .