Physical Contact, Touch and Personal Space in Work with Children


I have known Jacqueline since we worked together at the Cotswold Community in the early 1990s. Jacqueline was able to “think outside the box” and intellectually “poked and prodded” at some of the conventional thinking within the Community. In particular, she raised awareness of the experience of being a woman in a therapeutic community that worked with boys. This paper about touch is a good example of the sensitivity and insight that she brings to an important and potentially difficult subject.

John Whitwell

Physical Contact, Touch and Personal Space in Work with Children

Therapeutic Communities (1993), Vol 14 No. 1 © The Author Jacqueline Millar (née Fitch)

ABSTRACT: This paper presents some personal thoughts on the criteria that need to be considered regarding ‘everyday’ physical contact and touch between an adult and a child, if this contact is not to be experienced by the child as unwelcome. Certain forms of touch – patting, stroking and tickling – are considered in detail. The author argues for the importance of being aware of the unequal nature of the adult-child relationship, and that for children who have been physically or sexually abused such ‘everyday’ contacts can have a particularly powerful meaning. Suggestions are offered for helping such children to develop a healthy sense of their own and others’ personal space.

Currently, thought and attention are being given to physical management and restraint in work with children in care. These are areas of obvious and great importance.

Here I wish to give thought to the more “everyday” physical contact and touch that may occur between an adult and a child. The ideas and thoughts expressed here are the result of personal investigation and observation from my own experience, as a “recipient” and “giver” of touch and from my work with children. Currently a large percentage of the children with whom I work have been, or may have been, sexually or physically abused. I do not, except briefly, refer to physical restraint. It is an area of which I have no personal experience and also I feel that the issues are largely separate.

There can be much speculation and many theories as to the role of physical contact in human development and health. Some people believe it to be a necessary ingredient in children’s learning, physical growth and healthy development. For it to have a positive and “healthy building” quality, there are certain criteria that need to be met:

  1. The contact needs to “match” the relationship. Warm, physical contact only belongs in a relationship that has, as its basis, warmth and consideration.
  2. It needs to be mutual. It must be “OK” to the receiver as well as the giver in a relationship where genuinely positive feelings exist from the child to the adult as well as from the adult to the child.
  3. It needs to be non sexual in the sense that it should not arouse sexual feelings or processes in either adult or child, nor must it stem from such feelings.
  4. It must come from a position of respect and be experienced as non-intrusive and respectful by the child.
  5. Touch becoming a part of one’s relationship with a child is something that must be negotiated over time between the adult and child, either directly or indirectly, verbally or silently. It also needs to be “renegotiated”; just because at a certain stage in one’s relationship with a child, touch played a part, it shouldn’t mean that it automatically continues to do so.
  6. An adult should never assume that they possess the right to touch a child. Such a belief could only exist in the context of a relationship which in some way or other oppresses the child.

In thinking about the above, it soon becomes clear that they are easily, if so wished, open to interpretation, misuse and distortion. In the area of human interaction there cannot be foolproof guidelines. I am not attempting to offer any such “recipes for success”, but rather hope too present some “food for thought” and a basis for personal enquiry.

Touch is a form of communication. As such it can communicate the broadest spectrum of feelings, intentions, associations, etc. To even think that foolproof legislation could possibly exist within this area would be to ignore the very essence of what we were to legislate about; a touch on the hand can communicate anything from, “you better do it now or else” to the desire for sex. I have chosen “extremes”, simply to illustrate the vastness of possibilities. Within any physical contact there can, therefore, be a thousand psychological nuances. Very often they cannot even be observed. Perhaps it is this enigmatic quality of touch that enriches intimate adult relationships. This same breadth of spectrum is potentially serious when viewed in the light of work with children.

It is possible for physical contact to nourish, reassure and to communicate feelings of caring and warmth. It is also possible that it has functions within ourselves of which we may be unaware.

Touching can be:

  • a way of dominating; a way of patronising;
  • a way of satisfying one’s own needs;
  • a way of making reparations;
  • a way of seeming to communicate without actually doing so;
  • a way of feeling you’ve communicated when you haven’t;
  • a way of getting someone to be quiet; a way of getting someone to agree to something;
  • a way of manufacturing closeness or contact that may in a real sense not exist.

So far I have considered the possible meanings of touch in general. Certain forms of touch deserve, I think, particular thought – patting, stroking and tickling.

Patting is a commonly used form of touch. It is one that can be experienced as intrusive, belittling or silencing. It is also close in ‘form’ to a hitting action.

Stroking is widely used to communicate comforting and reassurance. It is also one of the main “forms” of sexual communication and seduction. It is possible that a child who has experienced being hit or seduced may “receive” the touch in this latter form, even though it may have been given from a genuinely caring attitude. However, as already mentioned, there can be “hidden” elements to our communication. Within us all, there exists the full spectrum of feelings and emotional states. Some exist in only small doses, others may exist in us strongly, but have become hidden from us – repressed. Our own conditioning, early experience and socialisation, will have shaped us in terms of which emotions we present to the world and feel okay about and which we may hide or not even “know”. Whilst we probably feel that when we pat a child or stroke a child our communication is wholly benign, there exists somewhere in us all, both the aggressor and the seducer. It is possible that these aspects of ourselves may be communicated to a child through touch.

At times, in work with children, one will probably have feelings of anger and possibly hate towards a particular child. It is possible that these feelings may be unacknowledged. With these children our touch can easily communicate our “hidden” feelings of annoyance, anger, frustration and possible unconscious wish to hit. The hand that we place with “paternal reassurance” upon a shoulder, may actually be the hand that feels like slapping the child.

Tickling is another widely used form of physical contact. Inherent in it is “a powerful” and a “not so powerful”; the tickler and the tickled. Although laughter may be present, some people believe this to be an expression of distress, frustration and humiliation. Tickling is often an easy way to make “contact” with a child. More real communication can be harder and involve one in feelings of vulnerability and insecurity.

What has so far been considered applies, I feel, to all children; those that have been abused and those that haven’t, those that have some diagnosed emotional or learning difficulty and those that we call “normal”. It applies equally to work in mainstream schools as it does to work in residential therapeutic settings. In thinking about touch in the context of work with children who have been or who may have been physically or sexually abused, there are some extra dimensions we should consider. In the following section I will deal more specifically with these children.

Some elements of physical and sexual abuse are that:

  1. It was not mutual in the sense that it was “done” by one person to another in the context of a relationship in which there was not equal power.
  2. It was not respectful.
  3. It was not genuinely or appropriately warm.
  4. It was not negotiated.
  5. It was done by an adult who believed, or acted as though they had a right to do this.

In addition to those children who have been sexually abused, many children have been abused by being hit, shaken, pushed, grabbed, smacked, etc., in situations which were emotionally and psychologically filled with disturbance and unhappiness. The wrong contacts have the power to disturb, to confuse, worry, anger, disempower and frighten. Contact which “reminds” a child of the abuse may trigger similar feelings. It may also “superimpose” itself upon the original experience of abuse and by so doing compound the damage and disturbance. In dealing with children who may have been abused, even greater attention should be given both to the way one touches (if one touches) and to the body part with which one makes contact. The stomach, bottom, lower back, upper leg, mouth and neck are areas which should not be touched. Either they are close to the genitals or associated with possible sexual activity. I would add to this list the head, for the reasons that it is the “home” of one’s thoughts and the chest, as it seems to be an area closely associated with one’s emotions and one’s defences.

In making physical contact consideration also needs to be given to how one is positioned in relation to the child. What might be experienced as O.K. when sitting beside a child and consequently more or less equal in height, might be threatening and uncomfortable from an adult who is standing. Size easily relates to power. Children are nearly always smaller than the adults with whom they have contact. Often they are very much smaller. Power and loss of power is likely to have been one aspect that “thrust itself” into the very insides of an abused child. Similarly, the social setting of where the contact occurs may alter its received message. Contact that is appropriate in social setting of school or busy kitchen may be inappropriate in a living room with a few children and yourself as the only adult. In the privacy of a child’s bedroom the same contact may have become wholly inappropriate and received as threatening or as a prelude to sexual activity.

It is likely that abused children do not have a healthy sense of their own or another’s personal space. This space does not end on the skin’s surface; abused children and all children need to learn to own, value and protect a space that is bigger than themselves.

We can help them do this by:

  1. Being sensitive to giving the “right” space around someone when we pass them.
  2. If the situation demands closer contact then usual, use of the words “excuse me” communicates awareness that one has entered a space that one considers to be the child’s rather than one’s own.
  3. One inevitably, at certain times, makes “accidental” contact, in a hurry or a confined space for instance. Saying “sorry” at these moments communicates that you do not consider it “a right” to touch the child and are apologising for doing something which was not negotiated or mutual.
  4. If one has to make physical contact with a child for reasons of safety, i.e. physical management of a child when he/she can no longer manage themselves, one should say something before touching the child. For example, “I’m going to have to take hold of your arms so that …..” Even though the child may be at this point “out of control”, this will on some level communicate to him/her that one is both reluctant and aware that it is the child’s body over which one doesn’t have “a right” to touch.
  5. It is useful if certain phrases become a part of a child’s vocabulary. I use contact from children which makes me feel uncomfortable or which feels inappropriate, “to model” the use of such statements. “Please don’t do that to me. I don’t like it”, “that’s not O.K. it makes me feel uncomfortable”; “don’t stand so close to me please”. Of course it is important that one says such phrases in a calm and friendly manner. One is “rejecting” a piece of behaviour, not the child.

We may assume that children are already able to make these statements themselves. A few may be, but I consider these children to be rare. Many adults in their intimate and secure relationships find it difficult or impossible to communicate that something their partner does or doesn’t do isn’t O.K. Unfortunately it is almost inevitable that the power dynamic between child and adult makes it extremely difficult or impossible for a child to say no, both to those things which are grossly wrong, and to the subtler feeling that actually one doesn’t really like something that an adult, who one may like and care for, does to one.

It is in this “climate” that abuse can flourish. All steps that we take to build children’s esteem, sense of personal power and confidence are steps, however small, towards creating a climate in which the dreadful things that happen to children would no longer be able to happen. All steps that we take to give up elements of power over children that we may possess or benefit from, likewise plays its part.

I began with the idea that touch may be of great importance in a person’s life. I will end with the opposite idea, that it is perhaps far less important than we might think; that what is of real importance is, rather than to be touched or to touch, to be in “in touch”. That is to say to feel in communication, thought about and cared for by people who respect themselves and who have equal respect for another, be they small or large.