When I’m working with a child, I try to move sensitivity to the emotional place where the child might willingly accept being physically touched by me. I might touch children on the back, shoulders, or top of the head long before I allow myself to give them a spontaneous hug, even though I might feel like it.
Children often have a very strong sense of their body as their private property to protect. While as adults we might be used to giving a social kiss or an affectionate hug to all members of an extended family or to friends, children reserve this privilege only for very special people. Sometimes parents suggest children kiss everyone in the room good-night, at an extended family gathering for example, and find themselves with a child who doesn’t want to comply with their wishes; it’s probably because they don’t yet feel the closeness to all of these people that a kiss instinctively symbolizes.
On the other hand, parents are sometimes just as concerned when they find one of their children has developed a crush on an adult and wants to sit by them, cuddle up to them, and monopolize their attention and time.
In both situations, parents need to be sensitive to what is appropriate for the child as well as the child’s feelings, and act accordingly. In the case of a crush, the parent may want to say something to the child that both acknowledges the warm attraction and also sets some limits to expressing it.
I often use touching as a way of conveying caring feelings. I was especially aware of using touch when I worked with young children. For example, when I was proud of Albert’s work, I put a hand on his shoulder and told him how proud I was of his working hard. Many times I reached over to touch his arm as a reassurance I was still with him as he struggled at a task.
When Albert and I walked down the hall together on the first day at his new school, I didn’t presume to hold his hand for fear he might be embarrassed if other children saw this. However, he close to slip his hand in mine as we walked for the reassurance and comfort he seemed to need. I held his hand gladly but lightly, so he could take it back easily if he felt he needed to.
Sometimes touch is the most appropriate response in a situation with a child. I can remember my own children waking from a nightmare, or having some frightening experience during the day. I would hold them and rock them or rub their backs with rhythmic, calming strokes. Though I might be saying words meant to reassure or calm them, I think it was really the rhythm of my touch, added to the soothing tone of my voice, that calmed them down and brought their emotions back under control.
I can remember seeing Mrs. Chilton holding a very upset child whose mother had recently died. As soon as the child began the emotional outburst, Mrs. Chilton took the child on her lap and wrapped her arms around him. She was holding him so firmly that he couldn’t thrash or kick. She explained to me that it was sometimes necessary to physically restraining, was appropriate to the child’s strong emotions gone out of control. It was indeed a touch that both she and the child understood and trusted.
Touching can help enhance a child’s sense of being valued and esteemed. Your sincerity toward children needs helps them accept their own needs and value their own feelings. They learn to esteem themselves through the esteem and caring they feel in your touch.
Self-Esteem Principle: Children self esteem grows in proportion to the depth of trust reached in a relationship. Physical contact can be a most fundamental expression of trust.