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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Touching Children should be an expectation not a taboo

A reflective piece
By Catriona Grant

The Festival for Dangerous Ideas allows us to think outside the box, to debate and discuss….. dangerous ideas.  My career in social care and social work spans 23 years. I have had a varied career working in criminal justice with offenders, with women and their children experiencing domestic abuse, in homes with older people, in residential care with adults with learning disabilities and with children - and in various development posts. I have found touch an important part of my practice in welcoming service users, offering them comfort, consoling them, showing that I care about their distress, laughing and playing together and depending on their needs due to age or disability giving intimate personal care.  I have always felt uncomfortable that I sometimes touched the people I worked with, like I had breached a taboo. How can we be in a caring profession where touch is a taboo? How can you nurture and demonstrate care without touch?

At long last I found myself involved in organising an event called “touching children shouldn’t be taboo, it should be an expectation” as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.   A plethora of practitioners and invited speakers gave their reflections: that children prefer to carry their rucksacks on their backs than put them in lockers as they are comforted by the weight; that monkeys who can’t predict where their food and shelter comes from reject their babies and become depressed more so than monkey who are fed less often and fewer amounts of food: that cuddles are scientific – there is something chemical and biological happening in our brains and bodies when we hug one another – our stress levels reduce; that in an experiment comparing a young person living with their birth family with a looked after child living in care the looked after child was touched five times in a day, the other young person more than 70!

A panel of experts spoke about their experience of touching kids and their reflections.  Steven Kelly, a Head Teacher in a busy high school reflected that schools are emotionally sterile environments – that a gym teacher would rather fill in an accident form than teach a teenage girl a gymnastics move. At a prize giving he found himself hugging the head boy, proud of achievements but then immediately in a position of an embarrassment embracing the head girl. Children need love especially when they don't deserve it. He reminded us that teenagers are ‘jaggy’ but they need love. How do you touch a young man who sees touch as a provocation? Or girls with sexualised behaviour? A young man coming to terms with his sexuality? Children and young people who have never been loved and hate themselves? We don’t need guidelines, Stephen argued, we need a culture of emotionally intelligent teachers and staff who know when to offer comfort and support to the children in their care.  We are on a journey.

Lesley McDowall, a Quality Improvement Officer, whilst visiting a nursery was reading a story to a little girl who wanted to “sit on her legs”. She welcomed the child on to her knee. She then wanted a cuddle...Lesley became aware of the staff watching her.  Some children, some very young children are in nurseries for up to ten hours, they need support with personal care, to be safe when they throw a tantrum, to be comforted when they hurt themselves and encouraged when learning new things, touch is important to their health and wellbeing.  Would guidelines help?  We need to develop emotional intelligence, use our judgement, and to have a stimulating and nurturing environment, all encouraging touch; we need to be able to talk about it in an open and healthy way. 

Mark Smith, Senior Lecturer at Edinburgh University quoted Steve Biddulph from Bringing up Boys, stating that boys enjoy rough play. In residential child care how do we play, nurture and care for children?   How do you show a child or young person you care for them and like them?  By hugging and nudging them? 

Should touching children be compulsory?  “Heavens no!” says Smith. Some research has shown that guidelines create problems rather than assist.  Football coaches and PE teachers need to be able to support younger children to put their boots and socks on.  He challenged that even some of the education children get about adults touching them is not helpful; we need to challenge the fear of being touched. 

Laura Steckley, from Strathclyde University reflected on research by Tiffany Fields who travelled the world watching people in coffee shops catching up with a friend.   In Puerto Rico they touched one another 140 times…. in London it was zero (a comment from the audience was in Scotland it would be minus two!!!)  Fields theorises that cultures where there is more positive touch have lower levels of aggression.   Research in a hospital, where in the first three days of life skin to skin touch was extended found that three years later there were more touching interactions and the children had higher IQ than those who remained in incubators and cots. There had been a cascade of touch throughout the child’s life - infants touched more as new borns were touched more throughout their lives and they thrived better. 

Our media and novels overly focus on the sexually abused child.  The abused and abuser has replaced angels and demons, it has become evil versus good. We need to talk about touching children, Helen Piper’s research showed that policies and guidelines only made workers more anxious and “hyper sensitive”.  We need to talk about touch within relationships not just touch itself, what our anxieties are, how we protect children from adults intent on harming them and how we support children and young people who are in crisis to move along the road to recovery, how we become more attuned to their needs to be touched and not to be touched.  It’s a big, long conversation!! 

Tam Baillie, the Children and Young Person’s Commissioner in Scotland reflected that as a West of Scotland male, he doesn’t do touch very well and is often exposed when meeting his European counterparts – he doesn’t know what cheek to kiss, whether to embrace, how many kisses to give or indeed if he should just shake hands.  We need to live in the moment and be able to adapt, but something in our head stops us living in the moment. We need to think about looked after children who don’t get cuddles and kisses. Some children are Looked After earlier in their development - not just ten hours in a nursery but maybe 10 years in care. Imagine never being touched when being looked after by professionals, never getting kisses and cuddles or being tickled?   We know that kangaroo care – a technique used with preterm babies who are hugged by their parents and given skin-to-skin care out of plastic incubators thrive and do better than those in incubators. There has been positive media interest in this topic.  The time and place to have a sensible conversation might just be now – this debate might just be happening at the right time.  We know we are not in a place where we want to be, so we need to talk about it, touch is part of children's nurturing needs.

There were so many conversations in the room; our European pedagogues in the room were slightly alarmed by the reserved nature and even anxiety around touching children in Scotland.  Some of us remembered the horror of the Edinburgh Enquiry to find out trusted members of staff had abused children in our care and foster carers in the room shared that they “broke the rules” regarding touch.  Some of us were just relieved the discussion was being had.  We know that some adults harm children and we must always be vigilant to adults intent on harm but we also need to continue our conversation about how we care and nurture Scotland’s children and young people and whether or not touch should be an expectation in that nurture?

Catriona Grant
Employee Development Officer (Child Protection)

Some references from the day

Mark and Laura both mentioned Heather Piper....
Piper, H and Stronach, I (2008), Don’t Touch! The Educational Story of a Panic, London, Routledge

Laura also mentioned Tiffany Field, an academic from Miami who is the founder of the Touch Therapy Institute. Here is a link to the website: 

Follow this link to a research paper by Field on ‘relational touch’

Field has also has written a book called ‘Touch’. Some of the research Laura was quoting is in this book.
Field, T (2003), Touch, Bradford Books.

You can also listen to a podcast of Laura Steckley talking about touch (and containment theory) at the Scottish Attachment In Action 2011 Conference

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