Sometimes when we touch

Touch is an everyday comfort that most of us take for
granted, but many professionals working with children are
increasingly worried about when, and if, to touch their clients.
John Powell explains why social work should not be a touch-free

If a child falls over and is hurt, or if they are upset about
something, it’s the most natural thing in the world for a parent or
family member to give them a hug or a cuddle. However, for social
care staff working with children it’s not that simple.

The question of whether to touch or not has never been so
relevant. Touch is a natural, reassuring way of making contact with
one another, especially between adults and children and is an
important part of a child’s emotional and social well-being.

However, former assumptions about the benefits of touch are now
being questioned and a sense of discomfort, sometimes verging on
panic, has begun to enter professional practices.

This has resulted in “no touch” policies being promoted in some
areas of practice, while a sense of confusion reigns in others as
practitioners try to manage their daily interactions with young
children by incorporating their own personal strategies. Who is
more at risk because of this: workers who carry on regardless
without considering the issues, or children who may be discouraged
from interacting through physical contact? Indeed, is it a form of
child abuse to actively pursue a “no touch” policy where children
may as a result have their very real needs for physical human
contact unmet?

It is important to be clear about what we mean when we talk
about touch. There are real concerns that touch has become
synonymous with abuse and that in this context it can often be
demonised as part of a child abuse discourse.

Touching develops emotional well being and security; it develops
positive self identity and self esteem; supports social interaction
and encourages confidence and empowerment. These are all part of a
vital though all too often missing practitioner discourse that
should be encouraged and developed.

This kind of touch represents the antithesis of abusive touch
that figures so prominently in all our minds. While all
practitioners should be actively involved in discussing concerns
relating to child abuse and protection, we need to reintroduce some
balance into the discussion by considering the benefits of
appropriate touch and developing guidance for practice.

In my work as a lecturer concerned with issues of children’s
rights, and with a background in social work, I often discuss with
students some of the issues surrounding being a practitioner.

In one particular discussion about child protection, a male
early years trainee teacher said he was very worried when young
children sat on his lap, especially when he was on his own with the
class. He added that even when he had explained to the children
that he did not feel comfortable touching “they seemed to make
physical contact naturally no matter how many times reminded not

In another session a student from a residential social work
background shared how she was concerned about how much social work
staff were touching a child who had emotional difficulties. “The
staff just seem to want to cuddle her and she seems to expect it
from them!” There are many other areas of sensitivity where both
children and carers may appear vulnerable but which have to be
dealt with as part of routine care-giving. In these situations,
appropriate health and safety policies need to be in place to
inform practice. However even with policies in place these areas
may still prove problematic.

These situations will be familiar to many practitioners involved
with young children. They raise a question that is becoming
centrally important: “What part does touch have to play in everyday
practice?” Young children need to bond with significant adults, and
touch is clearly significant in helping them to develop
relationships that can help their own developmental progress.
Equally practitioners need to feel comfortable in the presence of
children and at ease with an acceptable way of making physical
contact. Richard T Johnson argues that when considering “no touch”,
“we must implicate ourselves in the popularity of this movement.
Looking back as a pre-school teacher who chose to remain silent and
ignorant allowing others to create a pathological perception of me
and all pre-school teachers.”

Johnson argues that we must “create and open up more mature
intellectual debates about the various issues in an attempt at
restoring a sense of balance to our respective disciplines”.

From the two examples mentioned earlier it could be argued that
practitioners are developing a sense of unease about engaging with
children through touch. In the case of the male trainee teacher
there are questions concerning the mistrust that has grown up in
early years settings around the presence of unsupervised males. In
the second example there seems to be an additional anxiety about
children who are recognised to have special educational needs.

Both of these examples display an anxiety about touching or
making physical contact with young children. This is hardly
surprising since abuse has cast a long shadow into all sectors of
private and professional life that has left a niggling concern that
even the most seemingly innocent contact may harbour more sinister

Practitioners often express their concerns regarding physical
contact with young children through the question: “What will people
think?”. This suggests that when teachers, social workers, health
visitors or other practitioners touch clients, there is always a
question of interpretation.

Because of this practitioners become nervous and may appear to
the children they are working with to be distant and uncaring.

This is simply a development of a self-protective policy to
ensure, as far as possible, that their actions are not likely to be
misunderstood. In some situations this means following a policy
resulting in “no touch”. However, is this a less abusive way of
interacting? Some children may interpret a “no touch policy” as not
being liked and this may affect their personal self-esteem and

An informed way forward may be to consider the type of touch
that may take place between a carer and a child. Gale and Hegarty
for example discuss the importance of touch in caring for people
with learning difficulties and point out that “how one person
interprets the touch of another depends on each person’s cultural
background, the nature of the relationship and each individual’s
feelings at the time”.1

They also identified different kinds of touch.

1. Instrumental touch which was purposeful and included the use
of an instrument or piece of equipment.

2. Procedural touch which was purposeful and followed a set of
nursing guidelines such as dressing a wound.

3. Functional touch which was purposeful and helped with every
day functions such as washing, dressing or feeding.

4. Expressive touch which was spontaneous with emotional intent
to express feelings, such as hugging.

5. Accidental touch which came about by accident such as bumping
into someone.

These are helpful ways of considering how touch may take place,
particularly in contexts where nurses work, and there are some
clear connections to touch as applied by carers.

Appropriate touch obviously brings distinct benefits, but the
issue has become an area of extreme sensitivity and for some an
area of anxiety.

Practitioners could begin to become distanced from the very
children they work with, who may experience touch as a natural
occurrence at home but not outside of it, in schools, social work
or health settings. All practitioners urgently need a proactive
discussion that focuses on the relevance of appropriate touch to
help develop a set of official guidance that could inform practice
across the disciplinary and professional boundaries of education,
social care and health.

Touch is being recognised as an area that warrants urgent
attention. Now that questions are being raised about its
appropriateness practitioners should take the opportunity to have a
robust debate about the issue.

1 E Gale and JR Hegarty, “The use of
touch in caring for people with learning disability”, The British
Journal of Developmental Disabilities, Vol. 46 Part 2, no 91
pp97-108, 2000

John Powell is senior lecturer in early childhood
studies, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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