I recently attended a workshop that got me thinking about `touch' – especially as it relates to issues of attachment. And I got thinking about how we are becoming afraid of touching youth in our care because of the fear we experience about allegations of inappropriateness. I would like very much to have a discussion about this. So, I am curious ... What are the positions people are taking on the issue of `touching', hugs, etc. And what do you all think we should be doing?
One of the great challenges of the recent years for youth care has been the whole allegation thing with its generating inhibitions regarding touch and safety in shifting. The challenge is welcome for it does have a positive direction. Regretfully, it has also inspired a back lash or back off of sorts in that folks have pulled back from touch with young people who often crave and need to experience positive touch.
The good touch, bad touch movement offers a way out for young people and practitioners to continue touching in mutually appropriate ways. A young person's spontaneous and joyous expression delivered through a request for a hug should not be denied, similarly a rewarding expression on the part of a practitioner. Teaching all to frame such moments with the request to do goes along way toward allowing an atmosphere where touching can continue in a healthy manner.
Touch of course, but in the context of the situation and
the developmental readiness of the youth. Takes a lot of skill and courage
these days. Further, it is the motive or personal meaning perhaps that is
more important than the act of touching, which can be a metaphor for many
things .... i.e, one is touched, psychologically as well as physically ...
Touch without awareness and care can be worse than no touch ... and not to
touch sometimes is just as powerful as to touch.
I work for an agency that has latency aged children in
it's care. The children are emotionally disturbed, and come from a varying
background. We believe in hugs and physical touching to encourage the
teaching of appropriate touch.
The issue of allegations often comes up, but with careful training, our staff can still provide children with the nurturance they so desperately crave, and still provide for their own protection against allegations.
The issue of touching/hugging children is a major debate here in Ireland at the moment. We have had a number of very high profile cases involving priests and Catholic clergy of late and two major court cases involving trained child care workers. The public is very fearful of the exact mechanics of working with children.
One result of this politicized and legalistic climate is that very few males are training in third level colleges here which has profound implication for children in our care. For example, out of 50 students in my first year programme, only three are male. Out of 25 in second year, two are male and on my degree course, only three males out of 24.Of course, children are entitled to human contact as it is so basic a need. Unfortunately, social care practice in Ireland is being driven in a way the UK was a decade ago and workers are paranoid about how their actions will be interpreted by clients and families of clients. I'm interested in what has been termed 'appropriate' touching...
Touch. We are also discussing this issue constantly with staff, and would like to publish for the use of staff helpful guidance, and ideas of good practice. I would be very interested to receive, electronically or by snail mail, any examples of systems, policy, guidance etc. or detailed examples of practice that agencies are using to help with the issue. Examples of actual incidents – with positive or negative outcomes – would be useful. Our publications are inexpensive and readily available to the field. If anyone is able to send us such material, I will make sure they get a copy of whatever is produced, and also another of our documents too just as a thank you! My email address is above, and our snail mail is below -
Regarding touch, one respondent wrote: The issue of allegations often comes up, but with careful training, our staff can still provide children with the nurturance they so desperately crave, and still provide for their own protection against allegations. I am curious about what, in your setting, constitutes `careful training'. I am curious as well, what kind of training people think is necessary.
"A young person's spontaneous and joyous expression delivered through a request for a hug should not be denied, similarly a rewarding expression on the part of a practitioner. Teaching all to frame such moments with the request to do goes a long way toward allowing an atmosphere where touching can continue in a healthy manner."
I have often wondered what young people experience when someone makes such request. It seems to me that, except in exceptional circumstances, it takes a natural thing and makes it somehow `formal' – neutralizes the spontaneity of the moment.
Garth continues ... Yes, to some extent it does, at first. Yet, that, "Can I have a hug" clearly permits the experience, makes it OK and thus tension free, a plus especially if there has been an anti touch atmosphere. For staff, having the framing moment also can lead to a teachable moment allowing for ready comment: "you are wringing the air out of me"; "you will not let go, you really needed a hug, right now"; whatever, for the situation.
Also, two trends have emerged since using framing. The one curiously answers your question. I find the young people more spontaneous and appropriately so perhaps as the shaping teaches appropriate touch and also as you cannot snuff out joy. I was rewarded with a warm and spontaneous quick kiss on the old bald head recently for saving cookies the young person had made and thought eaten and gone. Just a moment but delivered in full gratitude and thoroughly respecting safe touch principles ( top of head, shoulder being socially safe zones ).
The second trend is that the young people practice
controlling touch often in waves or periods reflecting comfort levels. The
word goes out: "I don't want to be touched", and the team pulls back.
Curiously again, the young person often follows such a declaration by being
socially warm with everyone at giving affection. Having that kind of
personal control over touch, being able to practice it and get it down pat,
is what it is all about in the end and the loss of a little spontaneity for
a lot of comfort is worthwhile.
I am finding the responses on the topic of touching fascinating. In the seven years that I have worked in residential care there have been limited "moments" when I have found myself advising staff to be "cautious" with certain children/youth, this being based on what is known about the child/youth, the history and the" psychodynamics". But on the whole, we, as a team within our facility, believe very strongly in the significance and value of "healthy and appropriate touching", from hugging, holding hands, rubbing backs, massaging feet. The key here, in our opinion, is that the context, the developmental stage. the emotional space of the child, the meaning, the need are significant variables. For example, there is a twelve year old boy who often requests a gentle backrub or foot massage while falling asleep. His key worker, and the staff directly involved with him are comfortable with this. The child is comfortable, and most importantly, this "spontaneous" event has been dialogued at team meetings, examined in terms of meaning and it's Therapeutic Value. The issue of whether such requests are sexualized, the counter transference reactions from staff, and the reaction of the child are important signifiers.
The fact that this need for "being touched" relating very strongly to the child's psycho-emotional needs and his regressed state at bedtime, arose spontaneously, is important. The fact that we have dialogued this "spontaneous event", is indicative of the fact that the team are aware of the "complicated dilemma" of touching, are comfortable dialoging the issue and are able to conceptualize within a therapeutic context without diminishing it's "spontaneity. Perhaps importantly too, is that we have all spoken openly to the children and youth in our context about what constitutes inappropriate touching, what their rights are, and how they can directly express any "discomfort" to a number of persons, the system being designed in such a way, that they have direct access to all staff, from junior to senior, as well as access to "outsiders". In this way, a safety net with multiple points of access, is present, which we find, not only provides a real sense of security for the kids, but also the staff and importantly, creates a comfortable zone in which "touching" is okay.
On a daily basis it is possible to see "moments" of this touching occurring spontaneously between staff and kids, most often initiated by the kids, who are mostly in the age group 8-14 years of age, both girls and boys. This "context" of comfortableness has resulted also in older kids "feeling okay" to greet with a hug, allow comforting at moments of trauma, with hugs and to generally be able to allow physical contact, without resultant complications and traumas. Again, as a team we have been able to define that a male youth worker, spontaneously massaging the back of a 17 year old girl, at bedtime, would result in an open debate at a team meeting and a careful examination of the variables mentioned earlier. At this level, we have defined, that a different set of operants are present, requiring a very careful analyses, and a high degree of self awareness in the worker. Receiving a hug from this 17 year old, upon greeting after an absence would again be a different scenario and perceived by us differently, than if the youth worker initiated this 'touching".
The question of whose need is being met and the meaningful context of the touching, has to be examined. We believe that a context that: allows for open dialogue; provides guidelines for touching; empowers kids to know their rights and exercise them; provides frequent staff supervision; empowers staff to know their rights as well; and provides clear procedures for managing allegations of inappropriate touching, actually provides a space for spontaneous touching to occur with relative comfort, without any sense of such touching being contrived. And strangely enough, the very act of making ourselves "conscious" of these issues, has not diminished the naturalness of such events. Quite the opposite: it has provided the space to "just be".
Perhaps as a final comment, our understandings of the significance of touch, as a vital part of development, self growth, emotional evolution, and the introjection of the foundations for the "possibility for intimacy" later in life, are grounded in the research evidence of infant "wellness, thriving, and emotional growth", in the presence of tactile/kinetic stimulation.
Here at the George Hull Centre in Toronto we operate three residential and two day programs. One is a Crisis program (short term between 5 and 30 days) and the other two are residences offering a three to four month stay. We serve kids of all ages.
About twelve years ago we went through a reorganization from a medical model to more of a family centred competency based model. At that time there was a lot of "touch" between kids and staff, both in a caring, supportive way and in a restrictive way (restraints). Staff at the time wanted to keep the former and get rid of the latter.
We finally reached a position that physical intervention of any kind was extremely powerful and potentially (both) positive and negative. In our Crisis House we started a no-touch rule which was to protect the kids and staff from touching each other, the thinking was that children in crisis certainly didn't need strangers invading their personal space. In the other programs we have developed a culture that physical interventions are to be used in extreme situations; an out of control kid, to punctuate an act of strength on the part of a child, etc. rather than a casual everyday affair.
In addition we also work hard to re-establish family connections between kids and their families and so we are extremely careful that we don't establish ourselves as the "perfect family" to any resident, including meeting the powerful emotional needs of the clients at all times.
Enjoying touch discussion. One thought as I go through messages is how do we speak about touch as dance or jazz, i.e in a more intuitive or natural way, which is how it is best experienced. Although in working with kids we have to be aware and sensitive to their needs and history, when we begin to use words like planned, inappropriate, and appropriate it carries the discussion, for me at least, away from the real meaning and experience of touch. In other words how do we frame the discussion in a way that is more consistent with the way effective touch is experienced, and how is touch a metaphor for much of what we do in our work?
We had very interesting discussion yesterday with a group of child care workers, our discussion mostly centred on street children and orphaned children that they work with. What was observed was the fact that touching and hugging have never been thought about as issues, in context were they could mean anything to a child. What was noted was the fact that mostly in an African way of life it is normal for women to hug, though it is also not always but all in all the two have never been thought about to be issues.
In the last few days l found it interesting to learn from other friends from different parts of the world their feelings about the two subjects. However, even for us there is been an increase in cases of child abuse and most of the victims have been children who are in difficult situation like street children and orphans. Mostly the abuse has occurred due to the fact that these children find themselves in situations that put them at risk. I would like to hear from those work with the two groups that l have just mentioned how they deal with issues of touch and hug?
From my 8 years of experience in a residential setting, I have learned the importance of taking the lead from the youth when it comes to touching.
Youth give clear messages as to whether or not they want
to be touched. Often when a youth is in crisis or upset it is our need to
comfort that leads to touching, but stopping and assessing what the youth is
comfortable with is of the utmost importance. Presence and genuineness are
often more than enough.
Just a belated note on a touchy issue. I believe that the following points are relevant:
1. Touching is essential to life – infants who are not touched die from the condition of Marasmus (Greek for wasting away);
2. Professionals who "touch" need to be in touch with their own bodies, emotionally and energetically;
3. This energetic sense of "boundary" also indicates when and when not to touch an other;
4. Hugging is often a way to AVOID closeness or intimacy (e.g. far easier to hug than to make eye contact).
5. If professionals are in the business of touching then they can be trained (sorry about this) to use touching from a place of "awareness". If anyone's interested in how to do this, please feel free to contact me and I'll send along some details.
Editor, Journal of Child and Youth Care. Canada
I am very interested in the dialogue concerning "touch" on the cyc-net. I would like to be included in your discussions. Specifically, are there government guidelines for professionals touching children? Are there state regulations? Are there guidelines for touching special needs children and are they different from those for able children? As an intern at a facility for visually impaired and blind children, I felt compelled to reward or greet the children in a physical way. This surprised me. It doesn't "feel" wrong to touch these students, and yet, I have found little literature on developmentally appropriate or inappropriate touching. I am learning much from your discussions. Please let me be a member of your dialogue.