Psychologist Sylvia Clare discusses the importance of physical touch in helping children and young people reconnect to learning.

Are we losing touch with the children in our care? Everyone working with children is now required to go along with a policy on touch that, for the most part, proscribes making physical contact with the children in our care, in case we are sued for assault or come to be viewed as abusers.

I would argue that this policy is itself an abuse. Physical touch is a form of non-verbal communication. Touch often tells us much more than verbal or visual cues ever can. It is an intrinsic part of emotional literacy and intuitive wisdom, a kind of self- knowledge that shapes our ability to read situations and assess how to deal with them appropriately. People give off energies based on their emotional and motivational states. It is possible for most people to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touch. We learn this instinctively as a result of experiences of both kinds.

There is a subtle and intuitive feeling that goes with these kinds of contact, and communicates the truth beyond any verbal or behavioural cues. If we deny children frequent and regular physical contact, they cannot learn the differences and come to trust their intuitive knowledge. Children will be unable to appreciate the value of touch or to tell the differences between good and bad touch. As a result, they are likely to become:

  • less compassionate
  • more emotionally isolated
  • more vulnerable to any contact offered which involves inappropriate touching, on the basis that this is all they have.

They are also likely to become emotionally stunted, believing physical touch is only possible between certain people in their life. In some cases this might only ever be inappropriate touching – violent, bullying or sexually intrusive. Healthy touching for some children might only be available in pre-school or school environments.

Another reason for worrying about the proscription on touch is the link between emotional contact between people and physical touch. A child is hurt and crying, upset about the death of a relative or a pet, or even just about a playground argument. Human compassion includes comforting and reassuring the child that this too will pass. Eliminate the physical touch and any verbal contact loses its power. We cannot reach out to people unless we reach out wholly. It is like the difference between a supportive phone call and a hug.

Withdrawn behaviour by adults gives the child a sense of false power. There is a powerful inherent message of fear: ‘We as adults are afraid of touching you as children in case we get into trouble for it.’ It is nonsense to pretend this is respect since it is based on fear. That is inappropriate fear. Fear is often mistaken for respect but it can never be so. From the authoritarian approach to communication and relationships, respect based on fear is a delusion. Those of us interested in emotional literacy realise that, unless something is done from free will and as a result of conscious choice, then it is simply oppression and likely to backfire in one way or another.

Neurologically, this is also an important issue. The experiences a child receives throughout their life shape the way their brains develop. Children who do not receive sufficient appropriate touch are unable to form important neural connections. This leads to their becoming desensitised. The result can be an inability to engage in physical touch without experiencing acute discomfort or even pain. Such children are likely to develop into people lacking in empathy, emotional warmth and the basic ability to engage in normal human adult relationships.

As adults, we are responsible for creating the environment that shapes a child’s experiences. I dislike inappropriate physical contact as much as anyone but at least I was given the opportunity to learn how to recognise the difference. As a result, I have no problem reaching out to comfort and demonstrate my compassion for people, according to their needs and not a policy.

When I worked as a school counsellor, I helped the children I worked with to understand these differences where appropriate. They understood what was meant instinctively and without any need for any threatening or graphic descriptions of what might ensue. They just knew that some things felt good and some didn’t. They learned to trust that intuitive knowledge in themselves.

My decision was to ignore these guidelines and make appropriate contact with the children I saw, even when alone with them, because some of them had such heartbreaking stories to share and I was so much more able to help them and develop a trusting relationship as a result. I decided to take a risk of being accused of something, knowing in my own heart and mind that all I felt was deep human compassion. I trusted that my motivations alone would protect me from any threats of litigation and claims of professional misconduct.