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Ethical Considerations in the Use of Touch
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you know, physical touch is a particularly potent form of nonverbal communication.
With increasing concerns about child abuse, sexual abuse and harassment in all
forms, touch can be misinterpreted and attitudes can vary widely.
people have always used different forms of touch
to give comfort and support, to demonstrate acceptance, and to give reassurance.
More recently, practice models have been developed. These models, as you know,
emphasize hugging and use of physical self more directly in working with people.
used to meet the need of the therapist rather than that of the client, physical
contact is definitely counter indicated. On the other hand, because of the deep
need within people that touching satisfies, touching can be extremely useful.
However, as mentioned earlier, in light of the recent developments in the areas
of sexual abuse, therapists need to be extremely cautious in setting this boundary.
♦ To Touch or Not to Touch?
are two cases in which I used touch with totally differing impacts on clients.
Mrs. Fisher, a client in her 80's, is a woman without family and apparently without
friends. She was facing the final weeks of a terminal illness alone and without
family. She was not a verbal person, not easy to talk with, but I struggled along
trying to find some way to connect with her. One day I noticed Mrs. Fisher was
turning her head restlessly against the pillow in her chair and that her hair
was becoming matted and tangled, I offered to brush it out. "You might as
well," she replied.
I finished, I asked if she felt more comfortable. She was obviously struggling
with strong feelings and a lifetime of living within herself. However, she said,
"My mother used to do that for me." She began to cry and for the first
time talked about herself. She reached out for me as she spoke, and I held her
♦ Robinson's Ethical Decision Making
now Robinson's three step ethical decision making method. Ask yourself, "What
was the context of this situation?" Was the hand-holding in conflict with
the client's goals? In this situation, was there a potential for harm? It is my
feeling, in this case, breaking the boundary of physical contact was ethical.
♦ Case Study: Jason
second case, however, had quite different results. Jason was an angry, rebellious
teenager forced to come in to see me. I felt he probably viewed me as a fatherly
figure. As I walked with him from the waiting room to my office, prior to one
session, I accidentally touched his shoulder as I reached for the edge of the
door. "Get your hands off me!" he yelled. Unlike the hand-holding in
the previous example, the brush of the client's shoulder was accidental and not
intended. This served to increase my awareness to always stay a "safe distance"
away from Jason, so as not to violate his space boundary.
of a client that you touch, perhaps via a hug at the end of the session. What
is the client's situation that makes this okay? What are the context of the hug
and the nature of the relationship between you? If you never touch any of your
clients, is this an ethical boundary you might consider reevaluating or not?
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Bonitz, V. (2008). Use of physical touch in the "talking cure": A journey to the outskirts of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45(3), 391–404.
Kertay, L., & Reviere, S. L. (1993). The use of touch in psychotherapy: Theoretical and ethical considerations. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(1), 32–40.
Stenzel, C. L., & Rupert, P. A. (2004). Psychologists' Use of Touch in Individual Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 41(3), 332–345.
What is one good method to assess if your touching of clients violates
an ethical boundary? To select and enter your answer go to .