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The healing language of appropriate touch

By Gregory K. Moffatt March 7, 2017

I learned a lesson about the power of touch totally by accident. I didn’t learn this lesson in graduate school, from a book or journal article, or from any professional training. Instead, it happened in the front yard with my son.

He was 8 years old at the time and already displaying the burgeoning need for the independence of adolescence. We were wrestling in the grass, and I intended to tease him by holding him like a baby, thus challenging his independence. I expected him to immediately resist my grasp, but when I looked into his face and talked to him like a baby, he became surprisingly still. He stared straight into my eyes as one might expect an infant to do. I talked to him about when he was little and how I used to snuggle him in our rocking chair in the middle of the night.

“I can stop if you want,” I told him.

“No, that’s OK,” he answered calmly. Almost mesmerized, he stayed in my arms until I was too tired to hold him any longer.

This incident fascinated me so much that, in the tradition of theorists such as Jean Piaget, I used my child as a miniresearch subject, adding this type of snuggling to my son’s bedtime ritual. Several times over the next couple of weeks, just before sleep, I would snuggle him close, caress his hair or rub his back and talk to him about when he was a baby and what it was like bringing him home from the hospital. Each time I got the same response I had witnessed in the yard. It appeared that my son gained peace by letting me touch him tenderly as he lay in bed at the end of the day. If I didn’t snuggle him, he requested it.

After awhile, I decided to see if there was a use for this type of energy in therapy.

Why we touch

If you take a moment to observe people in the public square, you will be astonished at how often they touch — couples holding hands, a friendly back slap between friends, a couple sitting side by side on a park bench leaning into one another, a friend who touches another’s upper arm while listening intently.

Why do we do this? After all, most of the ways we touch are unnecessary for conveying the basic message. We could easily restrict ourselves only to words. Touch augments our conversations, adding garnish and accent to what we want to communicate, but it is also something much deeper.

Without touch, relationships are less than satisfying. Ask any married military couple when one partner is deployed, people who have loved ones in prison or couples whose relationships are dying. The absence of touch leaves us yearning and empty, even if we still hear statements such as “I love you.”

Conversely, watch the reunions of military families, loved ones outside of prison on the day of release or the power of gentle touches between couples who are trying to repair their broken marriages. These touches communicate that “You are safe” and “You are not alone.” These messages are at the very core of healthy human attachments.

There is great precision in touch, and social rules for touch are highly refined. We can touch only certain people in certain ways. At times touch must be invited, but there are other instances when it is expected; to ask for it would be uncomfortable. In my college classroom, it may be acceptable for me to briefly put my hand on a student’s shoulder as I lean over the desk and provide assistance on a test question, but I can’t leave it there very long. And if I move my hand in any direction at all from that shoulder, the touch immediately becomes awkward at the very least, but more likely unwelcome and inappropriate.

Appropriate touch depends on who is touching whom, the genders and ages of each person involved and the relationship between these individuals. Who we touch, what body part touches what body part, how long and with how much pressure — these are the unwritten rules of touch that, under normal conditions, we develop over time in our home cultures. Similar to the way that we manage personal space, we manage touch using unwritten rules that most of us know, yet we would have a very hard time articulating them.

The importance of touch  

We don’t have to look far to discover the importance of touch from the research. Studies going back to the 1800s demonstrated that babies who were not cuddled beyond their basic needs were more likely to die of fetal failure to thrive. They just didn’t grow.

Attachment theory is built on the importance of touch and has demonstrated that extensive face-to-face and skin-to-skin contact between caregiver and child is important for the bonding process. This is the foundation on which all relationships are built throughout life. Infant massage and the soothing effects of therapy animals are just two more recent areas of touch that are well-documented.

Interestingly, many mammals rely heavily on touch to communicate many things. For example, when an elephant mother delivers a calf, every adult female in the herd touches it. They bump up against it with their legs or trunk or in some other way make contact. This communicates acceptance into the herd. If they do not do this, the mother and calf are shunned. For the first several months of the calf’s life, it stays within touching range of its mother. Dogs, cats, lions, otters and chimps all touch with great frequency.

Early in the past century, John B. Watson advised parents to touch their children “as little as possible.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. Humans are social creatures. We have an innate need to interact with others, and touch is essential to our existence. The difference between good touch and bad touch is timing, place of touch, context and purpose. Touch that communicates giving is healthy. Hugging a crying child who has hurt his or her knee is a giving touch. Physical and sexual abuse are selfish, taking touches.

I saw the important role of touch in assessing relationships in the days when I did marriage therapy. Couples in my practice often didn’t touch at all. They sat on opposite ends of the couch or in different chairs. I could often spot the most troubled marriages by the way the couples touched or the way they completely avoided touching. Couples who were deeply committed to salvaging their marriages would touch one another gently, with compassion and healthy emotion, even in the midst of their hurts, resentments and anger. I remained on the lookout for things such as a pat on the arm, an empathetic hug or a natural snuggle against each other on the sofa.

John Gottman has noted that in healthy marriages, touching is one of the vital signs of positive interaction. According to Gottman, people in very troubled marriages may touch, but they grip, cling or touch with force or desperation. At home they withhold touch or touch too hard (abusively), both of which are deeply damaging.

The physiology of touch 

Touch affects us in the right side of our brains. We don’t think it through logically. In both positive and negative ways, we respond to touch instinctively.

In infancy, even before the cerebral hemispheres are fully developed enough to manage language, the brain stem, through the vagus nerve, connects the brain, the heart and the visceral organs of the abdomen. Interesting research known as polyvagal theory proposes that it is this 10th cranial nerve that gives us our “gut feeling” in some situations.

Touch stimulates this nerve, which is wired to the amygdala, the central switchboard of our emotions. When touch is “good,” it can stop the release of the hormones that cause stress. Good touch promotes the development of attachment. Bad touch does the opposite. In either direction, these routes are classically conditioned and become our default emotional responses; they can be changed only with counterconditioning. Consequently, right-brained emotional regulation may be part of the source of many dysfunctions. These dysfunctions serve as facsimiles for the things we really want.

Children touch freely and naturally. It isn’t until they are socially conditioned to do otherwise that they change. Unfortunately, that is when children join the ranks of even relatively healthy adults who desire to be touched but don’t know the most effective way to ask for it. In short, we don’t know how to say, “Hold me.”

Could it be that simple?

The ethics of touch in therapy

We don’t have to look far to find a reason to avoid touch in therapy. Some people don’t like to be touched; touch can be self-serving for the therapist; touch can be misinterpreted and blur boundaries; touch is especially risky with some client populations such as sexually abused children.

But I believe there is a place for touch in therapy. About 10 years ago while I was attending an ethics seminar for child therapists, someone brought up the issue of touching one’s clients. “I never EVER touch any client,” one therapist adamantly averred. Nods and mumbling agreements from others followed.

After several similar comments, I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I said, “If you choose never to touch your clients, you probably will be relatively safe from accusations of impropriety, but you may also cheat your clients of one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal.”

I expected scowls and sneers from the 200 or so professionals in the room, but, strangely, my comment seemed to change the direction of the conversation. One after another, people noted how they had carefully used appropriate touch to bring healing and comfort to their clients. In the end, the general conclusion was that touch is a tool, like any therapeutic tool. To ignore it completely may be unnecessarily limiting to one’s practice. A proper touch in an appropriate way at the appropriate time can be comforting and healing.

The ACA Code of Ethics does not prohibit or, for that matter, even directly address touch. With the obvious exception of Standard A.5.a., which prohibits sexual or romantic relationships with clients, one must think through the various ethical implications of the ACA Code of Ethics regarding touch. Avoiding harm to the client (termed nonmaleficence and addressed in Standard A.4.a.) is probably as close as one can come to the issue at hand.

The question we must pose as counselors is whether touch would be helpful or harmful to the client in any given situation. A recent paper from the Association for Play Therapy proposes that touch should be used cautiously, but the key ethical issues are to avoid exploitation, to touch only in ways that are consistent with the therapeutic goals and needs of the client, and to take developmental considerations into account. The paper suggests that the likely interpretation of the touch by the child is also critical. This conceptual approach to touch is consistent with ethical codes from nearly all professional associations.

Therapeutic applications

I decided to work with children early in my career because, while I was an intern, I saw many people still carrying the pain of childhood abuse with them into their 50s and 60s. If bad touch can be so powerful that its effects can be felt for a lifetime, then maybe good touch can be so powerful that it can help heal these hurts.

At the time of the experiment with my son, I thought I was on to something new. Little did I know that this idea wasn’t novel. Donald Winnicott proposed this idea almost 70 years ago when he taught us that touch could be useful in psychotherapy. It is interesting that Winnicott’s research demonstrated that parents don’t actually have to be “great” parents. They simply have to be “just good enough,” to use his words, to meet the child’s needs. In other words, even marginal parents by social standards can be just good enough if they coo, snuggle and lovingly touch their children.

With a parent’s help, I’ve used touch as I did with my son with some of my clients. For example, one of my 5-year-old clients was exceedingly impulsive and hyperactive. I described what I wanted the mother to do and asked her if she would be interested in sitting in with her son during therapy and trying this behavior with him in session.

“He won’t let me hold him,” she said. “He is just too hyper.” But she agreed to try.

After asking his permission (I always respect a person’s right to not be touched — adult or child), we proceeded, and the results were fantastic. As I expected, his response was exactly like my son’s. He relaxed in his mother’s arms for almost 15 minutes without exhibiting a single hyperactive symptom. For this reason, I have given “touching homework” to parents for years. I am amazed at the number of issues that can be addressed with this simple behavior.

Another of my clients was a 15-year-old girl. She was defiant at home and at school, obstinate and bordered on incorrigible. The relationship between this teenager and her mother was tense to say the least. I suggested to the mother that her daughter really needed a physical connection with her. “Try just holding her and see what happens,” I suggested. Like the mother of the 5-year-old I just described, this mother told me that her daughter wouldn’t allow herself to be held, but she agreed to try.

The next week, the mother called to tell me about her experience. “My daughter came home from school and came in the kitchen. I asked her about her day and got the normal disinterested grunt from her. I said, ‘Come hug your mother.’ My daughter said she didn’t want to, but I said, ‘I’m not asking. Mother needs a hug.’”

She continued: “I stood there holding her for a minute or so, initially expecting her to pull away, but she didn’t. I felt her relax, and weakly she put her arms around me too. We stood there for 20 minutes. Neither of us said anything. You never told me how long to do it, so I just kept standing there!”

The mother finally told her daughter that she could go if she wanted, but — as my son did with me — the daughter declined and continued standing there soaking up the human-to-human contact. Her real need was for contact — especially from her mother — but she didn’t know how to ask for it. This teenager had substituted promiscuity, chemicals and other facsimiles because she didn’t know how to say “touch me” in a healthy way. After this interaction, her dysfunctional behaviors began to abate.

I believe that counselors can also garner great benefits by carefully using therapist-client touch. For instance, I have used hand massage with children who have been physically abused. Their body memory has taught them that touch is a painful thing. At first, some of them have trouble interpreting touch. Others, sadly, but consistent with the research, feel very little at all. This is their bodies’ subconscious defense against repeated painful touch.

My goal is to use hand massage as counterconditioning to retrain the body memory of these children to recognize good touch, pleasant connection with another human being and how touch can be a giving behavior rather than a taking behavior.

During these sessions, the child stands in front of me while a parent watches from a nearby chair. I gently massage the child’s hands with lotion as I talk about his or her value as a human being and what a great gift it is to feel another person in a nonthreatening way. The first time or two that I do this, these children often stare at me and remain motionless, having absolutely no idea how to process a touch that feels so pleasant. Over time, they begin to long for it and, as parents practice this technique at home, the children need me less and less.

Conclusion

The number of reported cases of abuse today is far beyond what it was 20 years ago, in part because people know what to look for. People who routinely work with children are trained to look for signs of abuse in children and also in behaviors that they observe between adults and children. Even laypeople have become acutely aware of various forms of abuse.

For the most part, this has been a very good change. However, it has been accompanied by an increased possibility of being sued for abuse or, even worse, charged with a crime and jailed because of abuse allegations. This has led many professionals who work with children (teachers, counselors, psychologists and others) to completely back away and, like some of my colleagues in the seminar, never to touch children in any way. This is a tragic shift. Children long to be touched — as do most of the rest of us.

A friend recently told me that he and his wife had gone to couples therapy. At the conclusion, the therapist asked if she could hug them both. It offended my friend greatly, and he told me he would never go back to counseling. I suspect this therapist either significantly misread cues or, more likely, was seeking to fulfill her own needs. As we all learn very early in our training, it isn’t about us.

But as is the case with any tool in therapy, appropriate touch can be a powerful tool for healing. Just as we have learned over the decades about the use of personal space, we can find differences in the meaning of touch based on who is touching whom, in what way, with what frequency and in what context. So, I propose that counselors consider using touch as one of the many tools in their therapeutic toolboxes.

By the way, my son is an adult now. Recently he came home for a visit. One of his boyhood friends was with him when he came through the backdoor. Even though his friend was watching, my son hugged me long and hard. It was a deep and meaningful hug and, just as when he was little, I was surprised that he held on so long. But I didn’t mind at all.

 

 

For some good reading in this area, I recommend Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind by David J. Linden, and Touch in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, edited by Edward W. L. Smith, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a licensed professional counselor, a certified professional counselor supervisor and a professor of counseling and human services at Point University in Georgia. He has been in private clinical practice for nearly 30 years. For the past 18 years, he has specialized with children ages 3-10, and he has worked with infants and babies, providing developmental analyses and consultation with parents and organizations that deal with children. Contact him at greg.moffatt@point.edu.

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