We need to talk about the power of touch

In many ways touch has been contaminated by our fear-based world. We have let our children down by withdrawing one of the most important ways to offer love and reassurance, especially for children under 10 years of age. In reducing safe touch we have negated our capacity to nurture and connect deeply with our children.

In high touch communities, anxiety, depression and many of the disorders that are plaguing our children are seldom found. When communities lived much more closely together and focused on the greater good rather than individual success, it seemed that everyone thrived better especially our young children and our elderly folk.

There is some interesting research around that suggests we are losing our senses partly to the excessive consumption of technology, less exposure to nature, incredibly busy family lives and an increase in the freedom of children to be able to play endlessly without grown-up supervision.

I have expressed my concerns about digital abandonment of today’s children and this message seems to have resonated deeply in many families. It seems the digital divide has also been impacting the relationships of the grown-ups in our homes.

Wired to relate

As humans we are biologically wired to be social beings living in relationships within smaller units called families within larger units called communities. We are not meant to live alone or be separate from other humans. Indeed there is much research that explores our biological need to be connected to others. In families we call this attachment and in a wider circle we call it human connectedness.

To ensure our physical, mental, social, emotional and cognitive wellbeing we need to have loving, caring relationships of some kind. Within such relationships what we are seeking is intimacy – a close sense of belonging that is nurtured and valued as often as possible.

One way to ensure healthy intimate relationships is through respectful communication. This includes the words that we speak, the non-verbal gestures and especially through safe touch. Sadly over recent times we have heard more and more devastating stories of the violation of children by figures of authority particularly of a sexual nature. In response to that most organisations that work with children have created significantly important guidelines to ensure the safety of our children. Unfortunately a side-effect of these important new regulations is that we have created a fear around touch. Indeed I have spoken with many early childhood educators who have expressed concerns around how they comfort and soothe children without touching them for fear they will be breaking the rules.

In one primary school I was told that if a child rushes up to a teacher with their arms up to be comforted with safe touch, the teacher needs to throw their arms in the air and loudly callout for another teacher to be the observer. How traumatising for a young child who is looking for the comfort of a grown up to be confronted with something quite the opposite.

So I guess as the queen of common sense I need to express a balanced view around the importance of safe touch in all our lives.

Why is safe touch so important in caring relationships?

Clinical studies at the American Academy of Paediatrics found that touch therapy helped premature newborn babies to gain weight. It also improved asthmatic children’s breathing, assisted in balancing glucose levels for diabetic children and lowered stress levels, improving the immune system. Researcher Tiffany Field PhD from the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami believes that “touch is as important to infants and children as eating and sleeping”.

Soothing touch triggers positive brain chemicals especially serotonin which quite literally soothes the nervous system of the whole child. Other ways to soothe include rocking, soothing calm sounds from a safe adult, and listening to familiar songs or nursery rhymes.

We do need to seriously reconsider the fear-driven perception we have around the safe touch of students. A retired principal once told me that a lawyer had spoken to him about the legal perspective of being sued for inappropriate touching. You can only be pursued legally if you have touched someone without their approval or consent. This did not have to be verbal consent, tacit approval was sufficient. What this means is that when a child falls over or hurts his or herself and comes running with arms up for a hug we have their tacit approval. Common-sense needs to prevail.

We could set up some safe touch training that means teachers who are prone to and comfortable with safe touch earn a certificate that is displayed in their classroom. They would also explain to students they have permission to deny their consent to being touched in a positive way and to make that clear at the beginning of the year. Parents need to also be informed of this protocol and so it is out in the open.

Building strong positive relationships with boy students is particularly important as boys tend to learn through their teachers rather than through their subjects. The occasional gentle punch on the arm or high-five or tussle of the hair can be incredibly important in building that sense of a relationship that they can value and trust.

As a high school teacher I practised positive touch by using the odd pat on the head, a touch on the arm, a ruffle of hair, or, when I knew a student was struggling with life, a quiet shoulder rub while they were working. A retired principal told me that he believed a lot of boys’ aggressive and inappropriate behaviour was the result of touch deprivation, especially in the early years of adolescence.

As a coach of basketball teams I found that the boys really connected with me once they were off the court, away from the pseudo-rough play antics that happened on the court. I would often send a letter to parents at the beginning of the year warning them of my propensity for positive touch, giving them the opportunity to remove their child if they were uncomfortable with my hands on approach. Usually this resulted in requests from other parents to get their child into my classes!

What needs to happen in our homes and schools to ensure that our children know what safe touch entails is that we must educate our children around body safety and awareness. No longer can we hope that a significant grown-up has given them some guidance. In our highly sexualised world where explicit images and pornography can be found without even looking for them we must give our children the tools to be able to understand where touch is no longer safe for themselves or for others.

There are many excellent resources that you can start to use in your home is when your children are still young – anywhere from 3 to 4 is a good place to start. The most important message from body awareness is that the private parts of our body that are concealed under our bathers (and also include our mouth) are ours and anyone else needs to ask permission to touch them. We must also keep in mind that over 92% of the people who sexually abuse or molest our children do so to children they know – they are not strangers. This is why the need to ask permission – to get consent – needs to be something they understand.

I also believe that we need to encourage grown-ups to be more respectful of children’s right to accept or reject touch. I have witnessed many children being forced to give an elderly relative a hug or a kiss when they quite obviously were not happy about it. We need to give other options for children – can they say hi, give a high five, blow a kiss or not do any of the above. Our ability to interact with people improves with age and even if it may look a little rude for a young child to not say hello to someone that they possibly should, we need to also value the child’s right to refuse.

How can we build more safe touch in our homes?

  1. If your young children find their way to your bed in the middle of the night because they’re frightened welcome them immediately. If you find it difficult to sleep with a squirming, wriggling little one in your bed it is completely okay for one of the grown-ups to go and sleep in their bed (especially if your little one won’t settle back into their bed). The important thing is to soothe the fear or the need to be close first. One day you will miss the fact that they no longer turn up for a nightly snuggle.
  2. Be mindful of gentle touching your children more often – a gentle hand on the shoulder, holding their hands, ruffling their hair, non-annoying tickling, sitting really closely on the couch, being really close when you read stories, picking them up and holding them close in a hug, secret handshakes and high fives all keep physical intimacy alive and well.
  3. Help your children to create a list of people they feel are safe to allow them to touch them respectfully. We still need to be mindful that even the people in this safe circle need to be respectful of when children give their tacit approval to be held or touched. My beautiful two-year-old granddaughter can be slow to warm when we first reconnect and I will always offer her a loving verbal greeting, however with no pressure for her to respond equally. She is just two and has a long way to go to understand the nuances of human interaction particularly communication. Adolescents struggle in a similar way and again it is not a sign of disrespect – although it is often seen as that – or a sign that they don’t care for the people who are trying to communicate to them. They also improve with continued growth of the prefrontal cortex.
  4. Each child will have a certain preference around safe touch. Personal space is different for us all. Some of our children particularly those with sensory processing disorder (SPD) or who are on the spectrum prefer not to be touched at all. Some prefer very vigorous rugby style hugs, others non-verbal gestures like a smile, a wink or even a gentle nod of your head in their direction. Some like to sit all over us – and often. Some might like a gentle head massage or even a back tickle. It can be really helpful when we follow their preferences and we are able to meet that hunger for safe touch.
  5. There is a special spot high up on the back, below the neck (between the shoulders) that is particularly sensitive when touched in a gentle and slow way. It has been called the tickle spot. It is a bit like an accelerator button that can trigger serotonin, which is a calming brain chemical. Sometimes in situations where we can see our children struggling, gently stroking this spot can actually help them calm down and feel soothed. I have used this spot often in the queue in shopping centres when my lads were starting to get restless!
  6. The calmer our children are, the more receptive they will be to being touched in a loving way. Sometimes when they are really stressed and could benefit from loving safe touch, they reject it or push it away.
  7. It can be helpful having a conversation with those who are in your close parenting circle of family or friends about safe touch. Tell those who you trust that you encourage safe touch. I remember one of my son’s best friends who was dealing with the sudden death of his dad telling my son that my hugs were all soft and squishy and they felt good. Personally it took me a long time to be comfortable with other people touching me in a caring way and I’m a firm believer in the power of a good hug when it’s welcome.
  8. Sometimes being held with love by a trusted person can say more than any words.

Bringing back safe touch

If we have more conversations in our homes, schools and communities we can bring safe touch back in our children’s lives. If we keep things the way they are, being frightened of our children being hurt or touched inappropriately, we may be letting our children down big time by keeping them ignorant about what is acceptable, appropriate behaviour and what is not. The ramifications are enormous and there is a real need for bringing safe touch awareness into our early years’ centres and schools as early as possible. In this way, too, children who are being abused can know the difference between love, affection, unhealthy gratification and manipulation.

Dr Arthur Janov, author of The Biology of Love (2000), argues that the absence of loving care early in life causes increased levels of stress for a person. The result of this deprivation is high levels of cortisol that change the structure of the brain. Brain scans taken of extremely violent young men show huge spaces in the pre-frontal lobe.

Early childcare centres, pre-schools and primary schools could hold the key to improving the future mental and emotional lives of children, through implementing safe touch programs. The brain has plasticity and can grow the necessary neuro-patterns, once it has experienced loving care and nurturing. It cannot create the patterns without first-hand experience. We cannot build strong, warm relationships without safe touch.

It only takes one genuinely trustworthy person to use safe touch to reframe how a child sees the world and to reshape how their brains perceive safety and tenderness. Our world needs more love, kindness and gentleness right now and so let the conversation begin.


Image credit: ©️ georgerudy /Adobe Stock – stock.adobe.com