It’s so typical of our culture to say “In case something bad could happen, or because someone complained we’ve decided to BAN __[insert normal, natural human thing here]__ altogether”. You know, I’m surprised they haven’t banned walking. I mean, the potential of falling over and hurting yourself whilst locomoting is really scary. It’s such a high-risk activity. I would even say a higher risk than touching other people.
Yes. This is a rant. But a well-informed rant. There are also actionable items. So listen up.
Instead of crawling into our proverbial and illegitimate “protect everyone because they’re all delicate” shells, you know what we should ACTUALLY be doing!? Educating. Educating people on when, how and who to touch, appropriately. Give them tools – don’t take them away.
Touch is ESSENTIAL to living. It’s the first sense we develop as a foetus and it’s the only sense we cannot live without. Yep. Look it up. (Read this: TOUCH & WELLBEING).
Also, you know how humans are social creatures? Yep, well we NEED to develop relationships with other people. Relationships are a key indicator of health, longevity, mental function and quality of life. People who feel lonely are more likely to have ill health and die early than those who have positive relationships and feel as though they can rely on others. There’s even been a 75-year study that shows above all other factors (money included) – it’s the relationships we form and maintain that determine our health across the lifespan. (Ted talk here). Do you know what helps us develop profound relationships with others? Touch. That’s what.
In fact, here’s what Saul Schanberg had to say about it at a 1989 conference on Touch:
“touch is ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damn near everything we do… We forget that touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it.”
And just so you know how much weight that statement holds, Schanberg is the one who almost single-handedly changed the way the world treats premature babies. He demonstrated the critical importance of touch in the normal growth and development (both cognitive and physical) of preemie babies.
Just a teensie bit more fuel for the fire:
- Adolescence is the time where the construct of “personal space” develops. Children younger than 12 had no proxemic differences between sexes. (reference).
- Adolescents who touch each other less are associated with higher rates of violence. (reference).
- Massage therapy decreases stress, anxiety and depression in teenage youth. (reference).
- Touch avoidance is related to apprehensive communicaiton and lower self-esteem. (reference).
- Bulimic teens benefited from touch (massage therapy) through lowered depression scores, increased dopamine, decreased coritsol and improvements in a range of other psychological and behavioural scores. (reference).
For some reason, even though there are countless resources dating back decades that tell us how important touch is, we still don’t get it. Perhaps it’s because we don’t know how to change our behaviour and use touch positively.
So, here’s what you can do
It’s important to know that it’s not just about quantity of touch. It is so very important to understand the quality of touch too. Here are some actionable strategies to get you going in the right direction:
- Ask permission – consent is a key educational tool that can be demonstrated easily when you lead by example. Asking if you could give someone a hug is simple for you and profoundly empowering for them. Asking for permission also opens the doors for a greater conversation about touch.
- Share what makes you feel good in a positive-touch environment – giving voice to “why” it feels good will reaffirm those particular elements of each touch. Talking about it also gets you to understand your own feelings better, which leads to clearer communication.
- Understand why people feel uncomfortable in certain situations – ask and listen generously to people when they describe some kind of discomfort. Doing so you allow others to give voice to how they feel, which opens the doors for them to navigate through any previous ill-experiences. When we listen we allow people to table their “stuff” and begin to retrain their response to touch.
- Lead with compassion – when we approach touch with empathy, care, sensitivity, nurture and warmth, that is exactly what is communicated. Be clear on your own emotions, or perhaps intentions, behind each touch. Check yourself before diving in. This makes each touch a very conscious experience.
These tools are applicable in every social touch scenario. It’s especially important that we use these tools with children and adolescents, as this is the critical stage to forming strong human connections and positive life-habits. The research (above) shows that around the age of 12 is when people (especially boys) tend to distance themselves from touch, and therefore distance themselves from deeper human connection.