Handling Inappropriate Touching Between Children

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will identify and discuss strategies for handling inappropriate touching between children. We will also discuss how to properly identify touching that might warrant professional intervention.

Skin Hunger

'Skin hunger' is an unusual phrase for a very common human phenomenon - the need for physical contact.

The need for touch is fundamental to our well-being. Research has shown that 20 seconds of hugging can release oxytocin, a powerful neurotransmitter that promotes bonding, lowers stress, and lowers blood pressure. Likewise, a lack of physical contact has been connected to a number of negative health effects. A baby that is kept warm, safe, and well fed can still die of neglect if it has never been held or touched.

For these and other reasons, it is important for educators to be able to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touching among students.

Babies who never receive touch can die of neglect.
baby pic

Appropriate Touching

Schools must have a common sense policy regarding student touch that recognizes the need for certain healthy expressions of friendships through physical touch, such as high fives, hugging, holding hands, or a pat on the back. Having a proper understanding of appropriate expressions of affection can reduce the incidence of the negative impacts of skin hunger discussed above. It is a mistake to conflate appropriate touching with inappropriate touching and enforcing a strict 'hands to yourself' policy, in part because schools with such a policy may be poorly equipped to handle real incidents of inappropriate touching when they do arise.

Inappropriate Touching

In order for touching to be considered inappropriate, it is likely to be overtly violent or sexual.

Violent Touching

Certainly bullying and fighting should not be encouraged among students. Most schools have a policy about fighting that provides specific consequences for aggressive outbursts. Many of these policies assume that both participants are mutual combatants. This idea of mutual combatants - that both parties are mutually reciprocating the aggressive action - is usually flawed, as one student is generally the primary aggressor. To deal with violence, schools should interview the students who participated in a fight and those who witnessed it in order to determine whether the situation was one of mutual combatants or if one student is bullying another. Victims should never be punished for reporting aggressive behavior toward them or for defending themselves.

Boys are often discouraged from healthy expressions of friendship out of homophobia and peer pressure. This makes them more likely to satisfy skin hunger through aggression.

Occasionally, and especially among teens, skin hunger can manifest as play fighting for flirtation purposes. It is not healthy to teach people that someone who picks on you must have a crush on you. This reinforces the tolerance of abusive behavior within a relationship and sends a confusing message. This kind of inappropriate touching can be addressed by spreading a culture of healthy relationships throughout the school, where students are taught to understand how not to hurt the ones they love and to use healthier expressions of interest.

Sexual Touching

Sometimes expressions of attraction or friendship can become overtly sexual. Much like expressions of violence, in cases where students engage in inappropriate sexual touching, adults should first determine if the contact is mutual. Sometimes the curiosity about human anatomy can lead children to play games like 'show me yours and I'll show you mine.' This scenario is innocent enough and may only require a gentle reminder that one's private parts are private and not to be shared with others. Usually the embarrassment alone is sufficient deterrent to further acting out in this way. Statutory rape laws are not usually enforced when both parties are minors, but it is important for teachers to know whether both students consented, even if they are not legally allowed to consent.

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