Touch In Today’s World

“Reach out and touch someone” was an AT&T slogan 1979. It is fun to watch the commercial in light of touch today.

Did you notice the amount of touch in this video? But what happens toward the end of the commercial? Did you see how the communication switches to touching a person at the end of a phone line? Today we don’t even hear a voice when we “reach out to touch someone.” We send a brief text. I probably annoy people, because if a text goes on for over two to three interactions, I call. Communication has become quite impersonal.

Touch is such a confusing topic in this day and age. We teach our children about “good touch” and “bad touch.” It seems as if daily there is media announcing that someone touched someone else inappropriately. In church, we “pass the peace” and touch hands. Sometimes you will notice embraces. But, is it OK for a man to hug a woman and vice versa? Is it OK to hug a child? How do we know that touch might not trigger something in a person who may have experienced abuse at the hand of another?

So many questions, and today, perhaps not many clear-cut guidelines. If we look to scripture we see that Jesus touched many times. He touched the leper, the blind man, the woman who suffered from hemorrhaging, and even in Mark 10:13 Jesus touched the children. His touch always brought healing. But, we are not Jesus and unfortunately touch can be used in ways that damages the soul. Herein lies the difficulty.

God created us as people who need touch. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, says that “physical contact is important across the lifespan. Positive touch stimulates pressure receptors under the skin, lowering the heart rate, slowing the breath, decreasing stress hormones and boosting the immune system. In other words, touch helps bodies stay healthy.”

Touch reduces the levels of cortisol in our body. Cortisol is a stress hormone made in our adrenal glands. Dr. Field’s studies show that even a firm handshake has the ability to slow the heart and decrease the secretion of stress hormones including cortisol.

A lack of touch can be deadly. During WWII, Dr. Rene Spitz observed that infant mortality rates dramatically increased as more infants came to the orphanage. The children were given good care but they died. American psychologist Harry Harlow concluded that the infants died from lack of touch.

Consider this quote from Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin by Ashley Montagu.

“The impersonality of life in the Western world has become such that we have 
produced a race of untouchables. We have become strangers to each other,
not only avoiding, but even warding off all forms of ‘unnecessary’ physical contact,
faceless figures in a crowded landscape, lonely and afraid of intimacy.”

A Toronto district school board instructed their teachers that “there is no safe touch when you work with children.” I was a teacher for 24 years, mostly with young children. I had a motto that I honored throughout that time. I had decided that the day that I got reprimanded for hugging a child was the day that I would happily resign and turn over my hard-earned teaching certificate.

The American Association of Play Therapy, of which I am a member, has written a position paper on touch and ethical issues. So, as I ponder more about touch, I might suggest some general healthy guidelines in regard to healthy and safe touch. I believe that we can’t throw touch out with the bath water. These are not meant to be all inclusive but some suggestions to consider.

Check with your church/workplace in regard to policies on touch.

Following these policies is a commitment you make when joining a workplace or place of worship.

Ask before touching someone

When we shake hands, there is a ritual. One person offers their hand and the other person grasps. There is a sense of control availed to the person receiving the handshake as one can easily withdraw the hand. But hugs are different. One can suddenly feel engulfed by another’s embrace. This could potentially cause another harm depending on the life history of the one being hugged. So, ask first, “Is it OK if I give you a hug?” I encourage my clients to feel free to say to someone, “Thanks for offering the hug but I am not comfortable with hugs.” Ask parents and children’s permission before hugging a child. If a hug is accepted, it is best to be slow and gentle

Remember that non-sexual touch is different from sexual touch.

A touch can be a way to show friendship or support. Holding the hand of someone in crisis can simply be a way of communicating “I’m here with you.”

Hug a member of the opposite sex or child with a side-to-side hug.

If given permission to hug, this type of hug is less likely to touch personal body parts.

Consider that different cultures have different ideas about touch.

It is perfectly OK to ask someone of another culture how touch is used in their culture and what may be appropriate.

Henri Nouwen writes in Mornings with Henri Nouwen: Readings and Reflections,

“A hand waits for the touch of another hand. The human hand is so mysterious. It can create and destroy, caress and strike, make welcoming gestures and condemning signs; it can bless and curse, heal and wound, beg and give. A hand can become a threatening fist as well as a symbol of safety and protection. It can be feared and most longed for.”

Jesus used his hands to heal. May our every touch be a touch that comforts, blesses, and heals. May every touch convey safety and deep respect and concern for the other.

Kathy Milans

Kathy has experience as an elementary educator, teacher trainer, adjunct professor, and has served as Family Resource Director for a major hospital. Kathy is a Kentucky Licensed Pastoral Counselor and is credentialed as a Registered Play Therapist/Supervisor by the American Association of Play Therapy. She is owner of a private practice, Path of Life Ministry, in Wilmore, KY.

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