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Touch and communication

Watch Moyra Hawthorn as she explains how touch plays an important role in communication and how touch can be a difficult area for professionals.
My name’s Moyra Hawthorn, and I’m here to talk to you today about touch and communication. When I started my career in residential childcare back in the 1970s, touch was just a regular feature of all our contact with children and young people. At that point, there were very young children in residential care from birth upwards. And I worked with some of these children. And touch was just part of play, it was part of comfort, when the children were distressed. It was also part of the work with adolescents, which I moved onto, in fact. Sometimes it was just about helping young people when they were washing and styling their hair. But sometimes it was part of comfort as well.
And I remember with one young women suddenly came flying into the room, threw herself at me, and just wanted a hug because she was moving out into her own flat the next day. And again, although she was 17, she just wanted that bit of comfort. Childcare has changed in a lot of ways since then. And while, undoubtedly, many people, most people, had very good experiences in residential care as children, for some people their experiences weren’t so good. And I think as a consequence of that, during the 1990s, some people came forward reporting that they hadn’t had such a good experience in care.
And since that point, I think, some practitioners have expressed concerns about touching children to the extent that I’ve actually had residential practitioners saying to me that we’ve got a no touch policy in our unit. I’ve never seen any of these no touch policies, but I’ve been told that by some residential practitioners, to the extent, I would argue, that some units have almost become no touch zones. In this presentation, I would like to talk to you about why touch is important in child care, about its role in the communication with children, and about ways that we can look at how touch can be part of the relationship between staff and children and young people.
First of all, looking at why touch is important, research into the importance of touch goes back many years– going back to 1950s. Harry Harlow was– he actually was studying monkeys at this point, in fact. But he was able to show that the lack of physical comfort resulted in baby monkeys becoming emotionally troubled in later years. And Margaret Mead, who is a social anthropologist, showed that human societies that withheld affection in infancy had significantly higher rates of adult violence than societies that gave children lots of physical affection. And more recently with some of the developments in neuroscience, we’ve actually found that touch increases the production of serotonin, which is sometimes referred to as the happiness hormone. It’s actually a neurotransmitter.
But it is thought to relate to these feelings of comfort and well being. So when do we touch?
I think it’s actually quite helpful, particularly if you find that you’re working in a unit where there’s some kind of discomfort about touch, just to disentangle when we touch, and why do we touch children. Adrian Ward is an experienced residential practitioner, manager, and writer and Adrian identified several different types of touch, which I’ve found helpful over the years. He talks about nurturing touch, which is a very necessary part of all physically care activities. Incidental touch– just that kind of contact, a byproduct of activities. Communication through touch– and that’s from what expressing emotions and emphasising other channels of communication. There’s controlling touch, and sometimes that might actually be holding a hand, physical proximity.
Sometimes it can actually just be eye contact, but communicating through eye contact. There’s touch in play, and that’s a primary area for development with children when they’re experiencing physical touch. And it’s opportunities for children to rehearse and experiment in life. Next one’s sexual touch. And I would say that’s one of the forms of touch that becomes confusing for children and young people, particularly those who’ve experienced sexual abuse. And it’s one of the areas of touch that gives a lot of concern. We know sexual abuse is a violation of a child’s personal boundaries. And thereafter, they can become very confused about their own and about other people’s boundaries. And that leaves them vulnerable to further abuse. We know that from experience.
And part of our task of working with children is to help them sort out this confusion, partly by example, by appropriate touch, a touch that’s OK, but also about talking about it.
The final one, which Adrian refers to is healing touch. And that’s that safe and warm human contact to comfort a distressed child, and to reinforce other communications. And I would say that arguably it’s these latter two that are becoming confused in the care of children. And I would argue that if a distressed child does not receive the healing touch from carers, this leaves them vulnerable to seeking out others who might exploit them sexually, or through other means. And I think there’s also an argument that young people in residential care who do not receive that healing touch will actually engage in some kind of inappropriate, what’s seen as inappropriate sexualised touch with other children as a comfort.
So I think we really need to look at how we can use appropriate touch in residential care. And it’s also been shown in research that some young people have actually admitted becoming involved in disruptive behaviour to actively seek out restraint as a means of gaining physical contact. And our task with children and young people is to promote healthy growth and development. And if you don’t help children and young people differentiate these different types of touch that I’ve gone through there, how can they understand themselves about touch, and then move into adulthood able to keep themselves and their children safe, and nurture their own children. I just want to finish again with some thoughts from Thom Garfat.
In the 1990s, when fear about touch began to emerge amongst those working with children, Thom Garfat, who I referred to earlier said, you can see it here. “Soon we’ll be running the units, schools, and family homes in space age contamination suits. Our sight will shielded by blinkers like an old work-horse trudging through the field, and our every move monitored by cameras. Acceptable distances for appropriate interactions will be detailed in policy manuals. Conversational words will be chosen from a list on the wall. Touch will be filtered through sense-denying glove.” I think we need to make sure that this never comes to pass.
And those of us are working children can create an environment where children and young people can grow and develop feeling cared for, nurtured, confident in their bodies and in physical contact with others as they go through life.

This talk is presented by guest speaker, Moyra Hawthorn. Moyra is Research Lecturer with CELCIS, the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection, at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

In this talk Moyra reflects upon the role of touch in caring for vulnerable children and young people and some of the changes and challenges that the child care sector has begun to experience. She outlines different forms of touch, their purposes, and how the task of caring for vulnerable children and young people in the residential child care sector, and by implication elsewhere, has to involve safe and appropriate touch to aid their growth and development.

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Caring for Vulnerable Children

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