Although the somaesthetic system is the first of the human embryo’s sensory systems to develop and touch is so key to nearly every aspect of human development, function and behaviour it has been relatively under-researched. However, this is changing and recent neurobiological and psychological research suggests that well-meaning and affectionate touch is a powerful means of communicating empathy, offering comfort and calming children and adults. This is due to the fact that touch activates a crucial nerve system in our largest organ, the skin, that defends against stress and promotes feelings of well-being. It also mediates and supports connection with others, feelings of closeness and can communicate caring, positive regard and acceptance. In the case of children, safe touch by a responsible adult such as a parent, carer or educator can be the starting point or even catalyst for beginning a conversation about what is safe and desirable touch.
Research also suggests that safe and positive touch is associated with emotional and social development. A study by John Brauer and his colleagues** in 2016 found that more tactile mothers tended to have more developed social brains, i.e. a network of areas in the brain including the right superior temporal sulcus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the left insula, involved in functions such as empathy and awareness of other people’s mental states. The researchers found that children whose mothers gave them more physical contact demonstrated higher levels of resting activity and connectivity in these areas of the brain. The study was far from infallible in that the sample size was only 43 mother and child dyads and also the results were correlational and various other factors such as mothering styles including types and quantity of verbalisation were not isolated and controlled for. However, as the researchers state: “On the backdrop of this work then, it is not unreasonable to suspect a potential causal role of touch for human development.”
In 2017, members of the British Psychological Society were reported in various national newspapers as saying that “teachers who do not touch children when they are happy, upset or worried could in fact cause harm and hinder pupils’ development” and that physical contact was an integral part of the teacher-pupil relationship. Educational Psychologist Sean Cameron, well known for his research and practice with ‘looked after children” and his work at University College London, was also reported in The Times Educational Supplement as saying “What’s missing is a recognition of how important touch is,” and that “withholding touch is, in itself, a form of psychological abuse.” Indeed, in the criteria used for establishing evidence of emotional abuse, a lack of warmth and physical contact features very clearly. Most people have heard about John Bowlby’s* research and the abandoned children in Romanian orphanages and the conclusions he made about the effects of deprivation of human contact upon children’s development. This is, of course, an extreme example and other factors such as the experience of trauma and a particular type of institutional care, also played a part but nevertheless, it is worth remembering at a time when our children are being taught to stay away from anyone they do not live with, including dear relatives, friends and the adults and children they usually mix with in schools, play and leisure contexts.
In years to come we may see the effects of social distancing and, by default, the limiting of touch, upon the development of a whole generation of children. This will undoubtedly give rise to research, the like of which has not been carried out before because no ethics board would ever approve the extreme measure of limiting contact with children. This will almost certainly be sponsored by high status, well-resourced bodies such as World Health Organisation (WHO), national governments and/or large commercial corporations. Such studies will, potentially, have huge sample sizes, be longitudinal in nature and cross-cultural. The, until now, rare opportunity to focus upon and understand a major single variable, i.e. the effects of social distancing and limited touch upon children’s long-term development, will no doubt be irresistible to future researchers in their efforts to understand the complexity of human development.
We are living in uncertain times and science, statistics and politics, along with their dissemination of a bombardment of COVID-19 information, are constantly owning the fact that there is much they do not know. Something I know, as an experienced educational psychologist who taught for a number of years and who has children and grandchildren of her own is that children need a great deal of safe and positive touch. Department for Education guidance states that while it is often necessary or desirable for a teacher to touch a child, for instance when dealing with accidents or teaching musical instruments, physical contact can easily be deemed inappropriate and unprofessional. This guidance was written in the wake of a tidal wave of widely reported instances of child sexual abuse. Now we have COVID-19 and the no-touch guidance has been issued to everyone. I do understand, up to a point, the need for wide-ranging measures to stem the effects of this lethal virus but I also want to suggest that other equally lethal effects upon the development, emotional wellbeing and behaviour of our young need to be considered and addressed as a matter of priority.
*Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
**Brauer, J., Xiao, Y., Poulain, T., Friederici, A., & Schirmer, A. (2016). Frequency of Maternal Touch Predicts Resting Activity and Connectivity of the Developing Social Brain Cerebral Cortex, 26 (8), 3544-3552 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhw137