In June 2018 we learned from the Washington Post that pediatrician Dr. Colleen Kraft found conditions at a Mexican border children’s detention center to be a friendly environment where children could be happy and well fed. It was clean. There was a playground. Toys, books and crayons were readily available.
But in an environment where traumatized children were kept while parents were being processed by the government, something was terribly wrong. Kids were having meltdowns and staff members could only try to calm them down from a distance. A shelter worker told Kraft that she was not allowed to hug, pick up or touch any of the children. “The really basic, foundational needs of having trust in adults as a young child was not being met. That contradicts everything we know that the kids need to build their health,” Kraft said.
When we received the news about our no-touch policy for migrant children, saw the pictures of sobbing toddlers, and heard the now infamous recording of little kids crying for their parents, there came an almost universal response of indignation. Something was triggered in the hearts of compassionate people across the country.
Why were we denying these little ones the human contact that might provide them with comfort, support and consolation? But for those of us who serve children and families as chaplains, teachers, clergy, social workers, counselors, law enforcement officers, school resource officers, coaches and other care workers, the no-touch policies within our agencies have been the norm for a long, long time.
The Origins of Our Slow Burning National Hysteria
A slow burning national hysteria of sorts began to build with the Florida kidnapping and death of six year old Adam Walsh in 1981. Then there was the McMartin Preschool sexual abuse investigation and trial in California, and the Minnesota kidnapping, sexual abuse and murder of eleven year old Jacob Wetterling. The decade of the 1980’s seemed to inform us that there were predators around every corner. By 1985 pictures of missing kids were showing up on milk cartons. 700 of the nation’s 1,800 independent dairies had adopted the practice. I was the father of two little girls during those years. And despite the fact that my already long career of working with kids in trouble informed me differently, I began to worry about the safety of my girls. Some concern was warranted of course. But studies have clearly demonstrated that the overwhelming majority (as high as 99 per cent) of child abuse and abductions happen at the hands of family members.
Good things have happened as a result of our national worry about kids. The U.S. Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act on July 25, 2006, and President Bush signed it into law on July 27. The bill institutes a national database of convicted child molesters, and increases penalties for sexual and violent offenses against children.
The negative consequence has been this flood of no-touch policies in schools, camps, churches, treatment centers, detention centers, group homes and other places/agencies. These policies and procedures are aimed not only at those who serve kids…but at the kids themselves. Some school districts have policies that prohibit touching between students and teachers unless it is “exigent circumstance” (the kid is about to fall backwards down the stairs, breaking up a fight, etc.).
The resulting disciplinary actions can range from a verbal warning, an official written warning at the school level, probationary status or loss of job, censure from the state regulatory agency, revocation of teaching license, criminal charges and imprisonment.
It goes without saying that some kind of touching is certainly inappropriate. But no touch policies which outlaw and punish touching of any kind carry a higher cost that we could have ever imagined. Dr. Matthew J. Hertenstein, Ph.D., chair of psychology at DePauw University conducted research and cites several studies that point to the basic human need for contact.
He writes, “Touch reduces both physiological and perceived stress” and can promote “social bonding and wellness” as well as feelings of security. And in a recent study on neonatal intensive care units, babies who received touch reported 47 percent higher weight gain and came home six days sooner than infants who did not receive contact.
In 2011 he authored The Handbook of Touch: Neuroscience, Behavioral, and Health Perspectives. He writes about oxytocin, which has been called the “bonding hormone”. It is a so-called super hormone and neurotransmitter that helps with everything from illness recovery, life length, addiction recovery, depression recovery and anxiety prevention. Oxytocin is released through touch: hand holding, hugs, putting your arms around shoulders and so on. Hertenstein says this hormone lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting with others.
Psychologists have called on schools to change their attitudes towards physical contact with students, explaining to parents that touch is not only necessary but an integral part of the teacher-pupil relationship. Professor Francis McGlone, head of affective neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University, said that physical contact with students is “absolutely essential” for children’s brain development. With this in mind, what are we to do? The risks of hugging, patting and touching the children in our care are far outweighed by the harm we are doing by keeping a safe distance. We cannot be compassionate, be open to the suffering of others, or be effective healers if we cannot touch those in pain.
A Part of Healing
I remember an occasion back in the early 1990’s when I was the clinical coordinator of an inpatient addiction treatment center in North Carolina. A fifteen-year-old boy had been admitted to our hospital with serious alcohol and drug disorders. He was also a victim of sexual abuse by his stepfather and several other men. The youngster flinched any time a staff member tried to touch him.
His response to a hug by his female counselor was to stiffen with arms glued to his sides. She was determined that the source of his substance abuse disorder was rooted in the abuse. One of her therapies was to engage Tim in a psychodrama where he could confront his abuser and ultimately hit back with using a spongey nerf bat. She told me that the kid trusted me and asked if I would role play the abuser in the group.
I agreed but was unprepared for the emotion and violence which was unleashed. When he was done lashing out at me with words and the bat, he was sobbing and fell into my arms. I hugged him for several moments and the hug was returned. Later in the day he came to my office and thanked me. He said that he never felt free before in his whole life. Several weeks went by when I happened into his group room once again. A new girl had been admitted and was responding to hugs the way Tim used to. He went up to her and gave a big bear hug saying, “That’s not the way you hug. This is how you do it.” The girl wept. Tim had found the healing power of good touch. He truly was free.
One thing we should do as those who care for children is to teach or remind them that there are three kinds of touch; Safe touches. These are touches that keep children safe and are good for them, and that makes children feel cared for and important. Safe touches can include hugging, pats on the back, and an arm around the shoulder. Safe touches can also include touches that might hurt, such as removing a splinter. Explain to children that when you remove a splinter, you’re doing so to keep them healthy, which makes it a safe touch.
Unsafe touches. These are touches that hurt children’s bodies or feelings (for example, touching private parts, hitting, pushing, pinching, and kicking). Teach children that these kinds of touches are not okay.
Unwanted touches. These are touches that might be safe but that a child doesn’t want from that person or at that moment. It’s okay for a child to say no to an unwanted touch, even if it’s from a familiar person. Help your children practice saying no in a strong, yet polite voice. This will help them learn to set personal boundaries.
So, in answer to the question I posed of ‘what are we to do’, the answer must be that we take the risk by offering appropriate touching and hugging to kids…especially those who are suffering in one way or another. We cannot neglect them any longer by our fear. Because it isn’t touching that’s wrong. It’s the wrong kind of touch that is wrong.
Robert Kenneth Jones
Innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse.
In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.
His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration and meditation.