[highlight-yellow]Touch me. Touch my heart. So that I may grow to touch others. ~ Steve de Groot[/highlight-yellow]

I would like to thank Marie Christian and VOICES, Manitoba’s Youth in Care Network Leadership Team for giving me an opportunity to be involved in the Free Hug Day Campaign this year held in Winnipeg, May 2011. The purpose of that day was to educate people on the importance of making connections with kids who are in the care of child and family services and foster care.

If you were not able to join us and get a HUG, please watch this video from that event; and feel good! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIPRmIvX8G4.

The Getting to Better initiative is geared towards making the lives of as many people and the world overall BETTER. Making the world Better can seem like a really big undertaking. That is why an integral aspect of this Mission has been to enlist the support of others and through education and empowerment equip everyone to work towards Better for themselves, their families and their communities.

The July Newsletter proposed the idea that we could actually take a chunk out of world depression through the enactment of the 3 A’s; Acknowledgement, Admiration and Appreciation. It suggested that we all want good things and would really like to make things better for us and for others – especially, if we felt that we could accomplish this. The July Newsletter also demonstrated that our ability to make a difference did not have to be dependent upon on a lot of money, energy, influential connections, the acquisition of special resources, skills or the development of specific talents. We have the capacity to make the lives of people BETTER. Right now, Today. Tomorrow.

This is great news! The 3 A’s, however, are just the tip of the ice burg. As human beings, we are all equipped with certain assets and qualities that can enhance the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual quality of our own and many other people’s lives. What if I told you that you could positively impact a child’s life forever; that you could be influential in increasing the overall health and well being of individuals, families and communities while simultaneously impacting a decrease in overall stress, illness depression, anxiety, aggression and even violence? Well you can!

All of us as human beings, have been endowed with two amazing gifts that can profoundly and powerfully shape our lives and the lives of others towards Better. These two things are our skin and the ability to physically touch and be touched by others.

The remainder of this newsletter is geared towards the incredible powers and benefits of human touch. The article will highlight the positive aspects of touch and provide insights into a variety of ways to appropriately touch others. The discussion will also offer some thoughts on the importance of touch with children and youth who are in the care of our child welfare and justice systems.

To Touch or Not To Touch? There is No Question.

With Touch

There is an immense amount of research that has been and continues to be done in the area of human touch. Human beings are equipped and wired for it, because we absolutely need it. Some would argue that touch is essential not only for our overall optimal development, but for the survival of our species.

Newborns enter a world with many capacities yet to be developed. The greatest sense they have is that of touch. Physical touch is absolutely essential for providing infants with comfort and an overall sense of safety. Physical touch is also critical for what is referred to as the caregiver-newborn attachment or bond. Human touch and attachment is known to have positive impacts on brain development, immune enhancement and is critical for fostering the greatest physical, emotional and mental development. Research is showing babies that are touched more, do better; period.

Babies that are touched often develop an enhanced ability to self-regulate their senses; they are more pleasant, calmer and easier to sooth than those that are touched less. Human touch also contributes to the development of the brain by stimulating the development of neurotransmitters and brain chemistry necessary for relationship bonding and social and emotional communication. A strong bond coupled with human touch for newborns is essential not only for their immediate comfort, safety, overall well-being and development; it also has positive implications for early and later on in life.

Put quite simply, newborns that have a strong attachment and experience human touch do BETTER in life than those babies that have less of a caregiver attachment or are kept at a physical distance from caregivers. The benefits of human contact and caring early in life extend into childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Youth and adults who have experienced strong caregiver attachments and physical touch are physically, emotionally and mentally stronger, can self regulate emotions and are less likely to be anxious, depressed, aggressive or violent than those who are not as privileged to have such connections in early life. However, although optimal developmental trajectory can be set early for babies that have experienced adequate touch and a strong caregiver bond, continuous human contact and caring is essential throughout life; the more the better; at every stage.

In the early years of school, you can observe children interacting in close proximity; holding hands, hugging and even kissing is not uncommon. These children feel and demonstrate the strong need for physical closeness by seeking out each other or caregivers and engaging in some sort of physical touch or contact. Human touch and caring relationships with children has been demonstrated to result in better sleep, healthy physical and emotional development, better school performance, and increased capacity for relationships and the ability to better deal with life challenges.

Adolescents and young adults who have experienced a strong bond including consistent caring physical touch tend to do better than those youth and young adults who have not. There is compelling evidence that close relationships and caring touch has positive impacts throughout life. Some of the benefits include, lower stress hormones, lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, better overall physical, mental and emotional well being, strong emotional and social bonds and an increased ability for empathy.

Without Touch

What we know about the lack of touch and human attachment is quite concerning. It is a logical consideration to think that, if babies do so well with touch, they probably don’t fair so well without it. While this is a very accurate conclusion, it is in many regards a grave understatement.

There are serious consequences for newborns that are deprived of adequate human contact. The term, “failure to thrive” is often referred to when a child’s physical growth has been seriously stunted due to the absence of human touch, physical caring or a bond with a caregiver. Poor physical development is the most obvious sign of a shortage of caring human contact, but health issues related to suppressed immune system, chronic illness and even brain damage are not uncommon in newborns that have not experienced adequate physical nurturing. Human touch is so critical in the early months of life, there is evidence that babies have actually died from the lack of physical contact with a caregiver.

Babies that have been deprived of human touch can also experience serious consequences throughout life. Early physical, emotional and mental impacts can have cumulative and long-lasting implications not just for the individual, but for everyone else around them. Teenagers and adults who have been nurture-touch deprived can struggle with self-esteem, anxiety, depression, aggression, the establishing and maintenance of interpersonal and professional relationships and violence towards self and others. There tends to be a high correlation between touch-deprived children and later youth and adults that demonstrate a range of withdrawn to anti-social type behaviours. Touch deprived children become adults who are touch-challenged adults – meaning that this can become cyclical and may result in people that are neurodevelopmentally compromised and/or socially and emotionally challenged.

Handshake or a Hug

The Promotion of Human Touch in all Relationships

There is no question; human touch is good for our overall well-being and essential for the optimal development and survival of our species. You don’t have to be a researcher to know that caring, gentle and safe physical contact feels good and is good for you. This is where you, the reader come in – you have been gifted with the capacity to touch others. We have the capacity, through touch, to positively impact babies, children, youth and adults in the areas of physical, emotional, social, mental and spiritual health. Touching each other more may result in the decrease of stress, anxiety, depression, aggression and violence, thereby enhancing the quality of life of many individuals, families and communities. WE ALL BENEFIT!

Now some of you may be concerned by all this discussion of “touching” each other; especially if you yourself are not so comfortable with the idea of hugging, kissing or touching. We all have different experiences with touch and have a variety of preferences for how we are and who we may or may not be touched by. However, there are a myriad of ways that we can touch each other; many ranging from less intimate, to exceptionally intimate. My brother Dave was a principal at a high school. He understood the positive and important role human contact had for individual well-being and for strengthening bonds between people. Dave knew that it was critical for him to have a strong relationship with his students and staff, which is why when you met him at the doors, in front of the school or bus, in the hallway, or in his office; you were given a choice. Dave would smile and say, “Handshake or a Hug”. While many took the handshake, most went in for the hug.

The point is that human contact is critical. The question shouldn’t be, “do we do it?” The question we should be trying to answer is “how can we do it?” Touching MUST BE SAFE. It is critical that prior to touching people, we have the permission and consent of the individual that we are attempting to touch. If they are a child, we must also have permission from them. Children and babies that are too young to communicate should be under the care of a guardian that provides consent. However, while consent is important it is critical that we pay attention to the experience and or reaction during the touch. If there are expressions or signs of discomfort or stress, we should revaluate how we are touching. Communication is important. Finally, children have less power than adults and may give consent or permission as a subjugation of themselves as compliant or powerless. It is critical for adults to keep this in mind and be extra careful with the consent and comfort of children when it comes to touch.

A Note about Hugs

Hugs are awesome. They have the power to communicate emotions, show affection, caring and compassion. They can calm, sooth and help the hugger and the huggee feel Good to Great! There are many ways to hug. It is important to ask permission prior to hugging someone else.

There are different types of HUGS for different types of comfort levels. Some of the HUG variety include but are not limited to:

  • The Arm to Arm Hug – this is where each person can clasp the forearms, or the elbow of the other
  • Shoulder Grab Hug – one or more of the participants can reach across and clasp the shoulders of the other with their hands and can finish with a gentle squeeze
  • The Side Hug – this hug entails one or more of the participants to approach from the side, place one arm on the closest shoulder or around to the opposite shoulder from the back.
  • The A Frame Hug – This hug helps keep the huggers at a safe distance. With feet 2 to 3 feet apart, the hugger or both huggers can lean in and bring closeness only to the shoulder and head area (forming the letter A).
  • The Bear Hug – I have to admit, this is one of my favourites. It entails full on face-forward open and close hug with all parts of the huggers. This one definitely requires consent and is usually reserved for people who know each other and are comfortable with this type of contact.
  • Other – there are other types of hugs – be creative.

And remember that you can always give people a choice; “Handshake or a Hug.” If the answer is none of them, respect their choice to take neither.

Once permission or comfort are secured, there are a number ways that we can enact human touch. The following is a list of ways we can touch others, ranging from less intimate to increasingly intimate.

Infants and Babies

  • Gentle brush of cheek
  • Holding babies hands or feet
  • Snuggling beside on floor
  • Holding in arms
  • Cradling in arms
  • Holding head in hands
  • Gentle tickle
  • Gentle touch or massage
  • Caressing skin or hair with hand
  • Laying swaddled on chest
  • Co-sleeping
  • Kissing on cheek, head, feet, hands
  • Bathing

Children

  • Handshake
  • High five
  • Patti cake
  • Wrestling
  • Pat on the shoulder
  • Sitting close during play, crafts
  • Helping with grooming (dressing, brushing hair, teeth)
  • Tussling hair
  • Holding hands
  • Hugging
  • Cuddling on couch
  • Sitting in lap
  • Gentle tickling, drawing on back, back scratch
  • Gentle massage
  • Kissing on cheek or mouth
  • Co-sleeping
  • Bathing

Teenagers and Young Adults

  • Pat on the back
  • High five
  • Handshake
  • Handshake with other hand touching elbow or arm
  • Special Handshakes (can take many minutes to learn)
  • Tussling of the hair
  • Hugging
  • Wrestling
  • Holding hands
  • Cuddling on couch (TV, Movie, music)
  • Sitting close during homework, play, etc.
  • Kissing on the cheek or the forehead

Adults

  • High five
  • Pat on the back
  • Hand on the shoulder
  • Handshake
  • Light gentle touch of the arm, in conversation
  • Holding hands
  • Hug
  • Sitting close during work or play
  • Cuddling
  • Tickling, scratching back
  • Kiss on the cheek or forehead

*** Keep in mind that the above are suggestions. It is important that you communicate with the person you are in contact with. Get to know them. Get to know their preferences for safe, caring and nurturing touch.

Children and Youth in Care: Important Considerations

I can not write about touch without “touching” on a topic that is dear to my heart. I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of children and youth who have been in the care of a variety of social services, in particular child and youth care, child welfare and youth justice. I would argue that many of these children and youth experience challenges and personal and interpersonal difficulties that are the result of, among other complexities, the lack of nurturing touch and strong caregiver-child attachments. Some would argue “that’s why they are in care” or, “that’s why they have ended up in justice”. Simply put, these children and youth were not touched (appropriately) or loved enough. However, there are many kids in our systems that have experienced inappropriate, unsafe, traumatic and/or exploitive touch at the hands of people that hurt them. Either way, most of them were deprived of the kind of touch and care that they so desperately needed.

The thing that has hurt my heart consistently is to know that some of the children and youth in the system are with agencies, programs or services that have a “no touch” or “no-contact” policy. I am surprised that with what we know about the importance of touch, that this type of policy is so prevalent in our systems. Some children and youth in care may go days, months or years without being physically touched by the people that are caring for them. I could not even imagine the emotional, social, mental and physical implications of such an experience. If you are with an agency, program or service that values appropriate touch and nurturing, then I am not talking about you, your staff, or your work. Please continue doing what you are doing. All babies, children and youth need to be held, hugged and cared for in ways that are safe and nurturing. It is critical. The topic of touch is an emotionally heated and contentious debate in some areas. Such discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but it is a topic that we must keep on the table. The discussion should be not whether we touch or not, but how we can touch in ways that are consensual, nurturing and safe.

Among many reasons, two things, in particular, drive my passion for the importance of hugging and appropriately nurturing children and youth, who are in care, in a physical way. First, the evidence on the benefits of physical touch and strong caregiver attachments is overwhelming. Secondly, many youth in care have incurred their wounds, through relationships that were unsafe, inappropriate, dangerous, exploitive and/or traumatic. It was through relationships that the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual damage occurred. Shouldn’t it be through the relationship; ones that are “corrective”, nurturing, caring and safe, that may provide an avenue to healing?

Conclusion

The conclusion is simple. Physical touch is a critical component of strong and healthy attachments from the first days of life and throughout. It is good for our overall physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual well-being. Touch is GOOD.

While this article addresses the importance of touch, the focus was mostly on physical touch. Touching someone deeply can occur in ways, other than physical touch as well. Making social and emotional connections through listening, supporting, following through, meeting physical, emotional and social needs in a variety of ways are a few among many ways that you can touch and make strong connections with others.

The message is basic. When we touch, when we make connections, when we build strong attachments, all of our lives are BETTER. Hug the ones you know, the ones you care for; the ones you love… more. The world will be BETTER for it.