Blessing in disguise: How Covid-19 is bringing light to touch and consent

Photo by Dyu — Ha on Unsplash

When social distancing began buzzing as a precaution for preventing the spread of Covid-19, I panicked. “Oh no, this is the end of all discussion and advocacy around nurturing healing touch,” I thought to myself. When the pandemic first hit, there was an understandable catapulting toward fear in every way, especially in the discomfort and unease around the topic of touch and closeness with others.

Now, as the months have passed, I see more articles about touch and how much we miss it. Touch deprivation is now validated and a commonly acknowledged experience and term. People are looking for every possible way to touch and are going to great lengths for a hug, as mentioned in this New York Times article. To make hugging safe, people now ask, “May I hug you?”

That’s a gamechanger for consent and consideration for others. People are tuning in to their own comfort levels, and asking about the comforts of others more than ever before. Things that were generally assumed, like handshakes and hugs, are now discussed. Moreover, we show more creativity when connecting with others, and we’re better understanding our needs. Seemingly and suddenly, we’re having more conversations about comfort and consent. We are listening to each other and honoring these requests in ways that were not commonplace in our prior reality.

Covid-19 is the impetus for unmasking our issues with touch deprivation, consent, and fostering discussions on healthy compassionate touch. We realize that we miss touch and that it is essential in our lives. Yet we want safety, understanding, comfort, and connection. We are listening and honoring one another more. This development is a grand awareness and a basis for change.

As we know, the connection between touch and emotional health is profound. Touch is foundational for emotional connection, and it teaches us a lot about ourselves and those with whom we interact. This study suggests that people can accurately read eight emotions through touch alone. Touch also regulates the nervous system. Since we’re living through an extra stressful period, we need as much of that as possible.

While we may think that touch is still off-limits, talking about it and developing our awareness about consent are not. Continually learning and growing, children need us to address this new normal. They, too, are witnessing the effects of touch deprivation and sensing a change in our cultural environment.

How can we address this while imparting the skills to promote healthy compassionate touch even amidst a global pandemic?

Here are some suggestions.

  1. Talk about it: Ask your friends, your neighbors, your children how this time is going. What do they think about consent? Inquire how they are feeling about the lack of touch and listen with an open heart. Accept and offer support in a comfortable fashion, whether through touch or other ways.
  2. Modeling: Demonstrating healthy touch and how consent works are the best ways to get other people to notice and adopt these practices. Ask your child or friend, “May I touch you?” or “Would you like a hug?” and wait for a response before going forward. Practicing this often shows that consent is essential and leaves space for the other person to express his or her needs.
  3. Lean into non-verbal communication: Gesturing can be a great way to initiate touch while still waiting for a response and accommodating to each other’s needs. With toddlers, as soon as you bend down and open up your arms, they will make it very clear whether they want closeness or not.
  4. Guidance: Ask a child how the touch feels and recruit feedback. Bring attention to what’s going on internally, and what sensations they feel. This then opens the door for discussions.
  5. Roleplaying: Cueing young children to refer to feelings and exchanges helps children develop how they think and relate to a situation by encouraging empathy. You could say something like, “try a softer touch,” or “notice her face, she looks happy,” or “that hurts her.”

The goal is to pick up on the nuance of the touch, whether it’s a hug or a gentle touch on the arm. We give credence to sensations, desires, and hurts while validating and shedding light on our reality. Once we start to read one another, we also grow in our ability to give and receive touch. It takes practice!

Author 📚 speaker 🔈 peer support 🤗 🙏🏻PT specializing in Craniosacral Therapy 🙌🏽 co-founder @touchadvocates