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The Power of Positive Touch

I can’t say enough about the healing power of touch for a child who has been traumatized or suffered from neglect.  Children need touch to survive and will die without it.  The unfortunate reality of overcrowded orphanages provides indirect support for the negative impact of touch deprivation.  Recently, researchers observed the development of infants raised in orphanage where the ratio of care providers to infants was low (9 infants to one provider).  While the infants were appropriately fed, most often they were left alone in their cribs with minimal or no physical contact with the care providers.  The children suffered from severe delays in physical growth and neurobehavioral development, and elevated rates of serious infections (Albers, Dana, and Hostetter, 1997).

When children come into our homes that have been traumatized, they might act like they don’t want to be touched, moving away from a hug or a pat on the arm, ducking from a kiss on the head or the cheek, or stiffening when picked up and held.  So too, children who have been neglected, move away, stiffen and push away, act like they don’t like the feeling of being touched.  These children present some challenges for parents who want to help them connect, bond, and eventually socialize. 

Unfortunately, some adults try to “honor and appreciate” their child’s wishes.  Other adults feel hurt that the child they have taken in does not want them or is rejecting the parents in some way.  I want to dispel some myths and encourage you to find ways to connect through touch despite the messages these children are trying to convey.  It is BECAUSE your child has not been touched, stroked, cuddled, tickled, or just held a grownups hand that she pulls away.  It is because your child REQUIRES touch to grow and thrive that you must find a way to introduce healthy touch into her life.  I want to be clear here.  Your child is not rejecting you.  He has not had the experience of healthy physical contact and so does not know how to connect to it but make no mistake, without it, he will not thrive. 

Try a gentle touch on the arm whenever the child is otherwise involved.  Require that he or she holds your hand when out in public, crossing the street, in a store in order to continue on that venture.  This is as much for the child’s safety as it is for connection of course.  Sit in a rocking chair and read a book.  Try baking roll out cookies measuring the ingredients, , holding the rolling pin together, and later, decorating the cookies.  This activity creates opportunities for eye contact and physical contact to take place in the spirit of fun. 

Not all children enter our homes as young children.  Many children enter foster or adoptive homes as older youth or teenagers.  These young people have had years of physical neglect and worse, abusive touch.  It is imperative for these kids to experience healthy touch as well.  You may need to ask BEFORE touching your tween or teen as their startle response could cause them to feel the need to protect themselves.  But safe touch is a back or shoulder rub, knuckle bumps, a secret signal handshake (great for 6-12 year old boys) just between you and him, and doing manicures and pedicures with the girls.  For young people of color, lotion is necessary for their skin and oil for their hair to keep them looking good and healthy.  This is a great opportunity for healthy touch.  Help your youth with putting on lotion, learning to care for their hair. 

Night time presents a great opportunity for one on one time and cuddling while watching a television show or a movie, reading your child a book, singing them to sleep.  Message with lotion is a great way to safely touch your child. If your little one is young enough to need help bathing, this presents a great time to connect through touch. After her bath you can put lotion on arms, legs, back and neck.  Allow the older child to put lotion on their own tummies.   She might want to put lotion on you as well.  Encourage this because this allows for reciprocity which is healthy for your attachment strained child. 

All humans require touch in order to survive and thrive, from the newly born to the person who has lived their life to the fullest.  Helping our kids to bond and connect to other human beings means that they NEED the power of positive touch to continue on their journey through life as healthy human beings.  If you are providing foster care, find ways to make physical connections daily, even hourly with your young charges.  Don’t use the excuse that they need to “bond to their adoptive family” as a way of avoiding touching them.  He will bond faster if he knows what a hand on his shoulder feels like, a kiss on his cheek, a knuckle bump, lotion on his skin by your hands.  Be the parent that makes that connection.  She will never forget how you made the difference in her world. 

Albers, Lisa H. Johnson, Dana E., and Hostetter, Margaret K. “Health of Children Adopted from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: Comparison with Preadoptive Medical Records.” Journal of the Medical Association 278.11 (1997): 922-924.

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