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Transcripts of Selected Group Discussions on CYC-Net

Since it's founding in 1997, the CYC-Net discussion group has been asked thousands of questions. These questions often generate many replies from people in all spheres of the Child and Youth Care profession and contain personal experiences, viewpoints, as well as recommended resources.

Below are some of the threads of discussions on varying Child and Youth Care related topics.

Questions and Responses have been reproduced verbatim.

ListenListen to this

Safe touch?

Hello everyone,

I am a student at Mount Royal University studying Child and Youth Care Counselling. I am just wondering how you all feel about safe touch? By safe touch I mean hugs, side hugs, and hands on shoulders. I am wondering about this because I have heard that many agencies have a no touch policy. To me some of the youth and kids we work with need hugs even a side hug would work. I say this because a lot of the youth and kids we work with do not really get the affection or attention they need and sometimes a simple hug can help them with that, and make them feel better. I believe this is important and something that needs to get looked at. I also believe that safe touch should a skill we all have and are trained on.

And if we do not what a hug how do we explain that to our client?? When we say no do we use this as a chance to teach and talk about safe touch and what is appropriate and what is not.

So my question is do we show that attention and affection?? and if we say no to a hug do we explain why we said no to them and teach clients about safe touch??


Brad Rains

Boy, the issue about 'no touch' brings out the Soapboxy in me.

I agree with Brad's first two paragraphs totally.

The idea of prohibiting any touch is so counter to meeting needs of youngsters and gives them a very bad message – that the adults have been prescribed not to meet their needs for acceptance and affection. "Hands off" – how do you form a caring relationship with that ? "Safe touch" and education about it – fine.

Some years ago I wrote an article called, "Preventing Second Generation Child Abuse: Applying Chaos Theory to Reframe Interventions". Certainly child abuse had to be identified as a phenomenon against which action needed to taken. But in doing so there emerged "second generation abuse". One of the 'quick fixes' that emerged was deprivation and distancing – withholding attention, taking away activities, not offering affection.

Here's a quote:

"If the child needs affection, especially if it's in the form of a hug, or comforting arm around the shoulder, we certainly hedge on that, often for justifiable fears of being misunderstood and reported for sexual abuse. Yet, according to Keith Lucas and Sanford (1977) 'Generally children who have been unloved needed to be touched more than do others... Fear of stimulating sexual behavior often holds an adult back from expressing badly needed affection... A child craves affection and does not get it is denied a real need, but is likely to seek somewhat indiscriminately."

I continue to discuss chaos and complexity theory and how for example trying to impose too much control actually can lead to more of the same thing one is trying to reduce. So for example if children need affection and can't get it from one source, they may be driven to find it from other, less safe ones. This recursion dynamics.

Anyway, I think Brad has brought up a very important issue.

Karen VanderVen

Hi Brad,

(First off, I apologize for the long response, I am still working on my 'less is more' skill).

I have done some work in a residential setting where there was a no touch policy. This policy is often mostly implemented to protect the agency and staff i.e., potential threats, accusations coming from the youth regarding 'inappropriate touch,' sexual assault, etc. I myself had an encounter with a youth who wanted to give me a hug which I rejected out of fear of the no touch policy. What made it even more awkward was that I later on observed the staff and certain youth sharing hugs, laying on each others laps: very affectionate for an agency with a no touch policy. (And, once you understood the close relationships staff and youth had, none of these affectionate acts seemed inappropriate. The acts met both the youth and staff's comfort level and were not sexual in nature.)

So, feeling awkward, confused while being a very affectionate person myself, I asked the head director about the no touch policy. She informed me that the no touch policy was mostly to allow the youth to lead with what their comfort level was when it came to affection. (She was one of the staff who hugged all of the kids.) I hugged that kid all the time after I was told that.

So, observing other staff's interactions with the children and talking to the director should also give you a sense of what is appropriate.

Just like any human, children and youth do need some sort of affection to know that they are supported/ cared for, however, depending on the individual they may not be so affectionate and may actually prefer someone to just sit across a room and listen to them. Being affectionate with a child who is not used to or who is uncomfortable with affection may make them feel vulnerable or they may misinterpret the hug as being something inappropriate. Everyone has different comfort levels. I would say depending on the ecology of the child and once you get to know them you just have to treat the child the way they want and need to be treated according to both of your comfort levels. The most important thing is reaching the child without having to physically reach them. Some people show affection with hugs, others are very uncomfortable with hugs. A hug may feel appropriate to you, but may not feel appropriate to that child, and that's okay.

Using that moment as a gateway to talk about appropriate touch may work but it all depends on the context. If a child wants to hug you because they just met you, it may be a good time to bring up your own personal boundaries as well as the agency policy. But if a child has just disclosed something very personal they may actually feel insulted, rejected or even confused as to why you would think their hug is inappropriate or why you would divert the conversation to personal boundaries. They might think, were you even listening? It may even be grounds for the child to loose trust in you which may cause negative tension in your rapport.

Stay present.

Jaclyn Nobrega

Hey Brad,

Yes there is a lot of disagreement on this and I guess most agency policies are intended to guard against inappropriate behaviour or allegations of abuse, etc.

My personal experience is that touch is not only acceptable but absolutely necessary. How would we – as reasonable well adjusted adults – feel if we were deprived of touch for an extended period of time? Probably not very good. How do children feel about this? I wonder if agencies ever ask children this question, since the principle is that children should participate in important decisions in their lives and care.

Touch is a basic human need. If we are concerned about how to ensure that it is appropriate we should deal with that question rather than deprive children of this basic need.

Especially if it is initiated by the child – imagine the feeling of rejection when we are not allowed to return that affection (belonging).

I take the risk (what a horrible way to look at it!) and touch when appropriate.

Werner van der Westhuizen
South Africa

I believe hugs and other forms of safe touch are crucial for the youth in our care.

Obviously, it can be tricky to navigate through the layers of trauma, deep rooted negative emotions and mixed messages they have received over the years, but when we get right down to it, young people need and benefit from comforting touch. As a Child and Youth Care worker who has been in the field for 11 years now, I have witnessed time and time again that the workers who develop the most beneficial and therapeutic relationships with the youth are those that employ intentional and responsive touch in their daily practice.

As a father of two young girls, I know that there are times they just need to be held and soothed, to help them calm and settle when excited or overwhelmed, recover from a bad dream, or feel supported and cared for when they have a bump or bruise. Touch is fundamental. While the teenagers I work with may have a rough exterior and have experienced things belonging solely to a very adult world, deep down inside, developmentally, they may still be a very young, frightened child craving and needing some form of comforting touch.

With adolescent boys the type of touch may include hugs, and almost certainly involves sports or mild horseplay but it is still touch, and it matters. Some boys are more comfortable than others asking for hugs, but almost all will at some time seek out some contact and connection. One of my fondest interactions was with a young boy who wouldn't let anybody get close, but one day he hugged me tight and pretended to be a mole on my back. I didn't dispel the illusion by pointing out that he was hugging me, I just played along with him, and when he had held on long enough he let go. Viewed from the outside, our relationship was unchanged, which was important because he would never have wanted to be seen as the boy who hugged a staff member, but the subtext had changed significantly. He had finally reached out for someone else and been received favorably. Everyone who worked closely with that boy marked it as an important milestone in his development. I'm happy I was able to help him in that moment.

I have been working with adolescent females in a residential setting for the last five years and I make a point of letting them know that hugs are okay and are there if they ever want them. Some cry when they realize that they can get a safe, no strings attached hug when and if they want one, while others are more circumspect and aloof. We carefully work our way towards hugs by establishing trust and mutual respect and by taking baby steps along the way. It may start with me helping them brush out their hair when they've got a serious bird's nest going, or by offering to apply their nail polish after they have given my nails some attention. (You should have seen the look on the cashier's face when I rushed to the drug store to pick up some feminine hygiene supplies while sporting bright pink nail polish!) Not all the youth come looking for hugs, but when they do hugs or other forms of safe, comforting touch are available and freely provided.

At the end of the day, the youth will let us know what they want and need and it is our job to understand what they are asking for and help them fulfill that most basic and human necessity.

If not us, then who?

Greg Squires

Greg. I’d hire you in a minute!

Lorraine Fox

Hi Greg,

Everything you have written sums up reams and reams of research that highlights the importance of human touch. Thank you.


I find the 'touch' discussion very interesting, I am a student of Child and Youth Care work in DUT South Africa. this has also been one of my many concerns when it comes to our work. Last semester we did a module of communication and we spoke briefly about appropriate touch in Child and Youth Care work. I have realised many times that it is very easy for adults to make conclusions about what is appropriate for a young person and what is not. I fully understand Greg's comment and it is a very helpful one and has got me thinking a lot. I have a few questions which I can say arose from his comment on the topic.

In your work you said you find giving hugs very helpful to the young people you work with and now I just wish to know whether you offer the hugs or you let the young people ask for them? After the hug do you discuss the interaction with the young person? How do you know the appropriate time or situation or even child to offer a hug to? Is this kind of interaction practiced by everyone in your place of work or is it something that you feel you have to do?

I ask these things because I am concerned about how I am going to know what is appropriate and what is not, I do believe that the element of Self is very important in Child and Youth Care work. We offer young people our knowledge, skills and Self and from all of these I find Self to be very complicated because we might end up practicing what we feel is appropriate, but how often do we sit down or even open a platform with the young people we work with to hear about them, their feelings towards this element of Self we offer them, or are we too absorbed in following our intuitions so that we forget that those we work with have a lot more brokenness in their development than we think.

I hope my comment and questions make sense, I really wish to learn and grow more in my Child and Youth Care field and I believe that the best way is to share and listen to those in the field mostly.

Lindelwa Mkhize

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