Tuesday, November 5, 2019

About Physical Contact: Taming a “Touchy” Subject

In the sessions I facilitate with clients, and in the courses I teach, the topic of physical contact comes up.


In Brain Gym® workshops, for example, after everyone learns the Lazy 8s movement I often introduce the idea of doing Lazy 8s on each other’s backs. This is a fun activity, bringing this infinity-pattern into kinesthetic awareness.

Many people, especially young children, find it quite soothing. I’ve calmed many infants by tracing Lazy 8s on their back. Classroom teachers tell me that their students enjoy pairing up and offering this kind of friendly connection with each other. 

However, my instruction to those learning this activity is this: 

     Always get permission for physical contact 

     from the person you’re working with.

Language is everything.

Notice my words here: permission for “physical contact,” not “touch.” 

In our world, the word “touch” carries quite a charge. Depending on the circumstances, the words “He touched me” could be neutral information about a past action, or a highly emotional accusation.

So, when my students fall into language for this kind of permission by saying “May I touch you?” I suggest that they find clearer, more specific words.

Neutral and informative

Anytime there’s physical contact, the language around it should be as neutral and informative as possible. 

I like to give very specific information about the kind of physical contact the person can expect.

In the case of this particular activity, the language I recommend is simply: “May I do Lazy 8s on your back, with the flat of my hand?” These words provide a clear image of exactly what will happen, where it will happen, how long it's likely to go on, and a quality of contact and pressure to be expected.

And your verbal timing should provide space for the person to say “No.” There should always be a pause—an opportunity for the person to consider, and to answer back. No rushing through this. When someone does say “No,” I thank them for being so very clear about what works for them. 

Sometimes I’ll suggest an alternative: “May I do Lazy 8s on your arm?” Because this is a location that the person can see and monitor, it likely feels safer.

Watch for signs of stress
I have no idea who among my clients or students might have some kind of physical abuse in their past—or present. Without making a big deal of it, I simply have in the back of my mind a subtle monitoring for signs of discomfort: holding breath, turning pale, sound of alarm in their voice, or a long pause before a reluctant “Yes.” I’ve seen all these. 

For those I’m teaching, signs of stress may include standing too far from the person they’re working with, a jerky approach, lack of eye contact, or an uncomfortable giggle.

When I notice these things with a client I don’t necessarily say anything; however, I pause in the session and suggest that we both have some water, sit in Hook-ups, and take a few deep breaths. At that point, I ask if the person is ready to continue. I notice carefully, and go from there, adjusting as necessary. 

With a workshop student I may have a bit of a conversation with them about their comfort level with physical contact, and suggest the same water, Hook-ups, and a few deep breaths, as above. If there’s time, I may take the opportunity to do a mini balance with them on this topic.

Here are some examples of how I manage specific kinds of physical contact in my office:

On a first meeting

As an Educational Kinesiologist, muscle checking is a standard part of what I do. No matter the age of the person I’m working with, I make sure that their first experience of contact with me as a practitioner is them moving toward me. This is a very subtle, but profound, difference.

To do this, I demonstrate an arm position for muscle checking, saying, “Hold your arm in about this position.” Then I put my hand about three inches above their forearm and say, “now bring your arm up under my hand until we connect.” Then comes the rest of muscle checking using that arm.

Points on the body
One aspect of the upper-level Edu-K work is to check an "indicator" muscle (usually involving the arm), while contacting various points on the body, to detect stress in certain functions.

For example, to determine if there’s stress in the “Breathing Dimension” we muscle check the arm while holding fingers of the other hand to a spot under the left side of the ribcage. My practice is to explain that I’d like to “connect with where you breathe to see if it’s happy,” point to that spot on myself, and say, "Is this OK?" Following a "yes" or a nod, I carry on with the muscle check on the client. 

As the client becomes familiar with who I am and how the process unfolds, getting repeated permissions for the same kind of checking becomes unnecessary. However, anytime the process calls for some new kind of physical contact, I always ask permission.

Tracing patterns

Some of the techniques I use are the Developmental Building Block Activities from Cecilia Koester’s BG170 course, Brain Gym® for Special Education Providers.

Two of these techniques call for tracing along the body in specific patterns. For example, the Navel Radiation activity calls for tracing on the body (greatly simplified) from navel out to fingertips, back to navel, out to the toes, back to the navel, etc. 

Before I facilitate this on anyone of any age, I explain clearly where I’ll be tracing, and get permission. If the person looks the least bit uncertain, I model it first, tracing on my own body. I point toward my bodywork table and ask them if they want to lie on their back or their belly for this (kids love being on the table), and allow them to position themselves as they like. 

I begin the process and ask them to guide me: faster, slower, deeper, lighter. I tell my youngest clients, “Drive me like a car and tell me just what to do.” In this playful way, I give children authority to direct their own experience so it’s most helpful to them. (They always know exactly what they need.) 

When this kind of physical contact is confident, clear, professional, and done with respect for the personal boundaries of the person receiving it, recipients are able to relax deeply and reap the neurological benefits of this kind of therapeutic pattern-building experience.

The importance of personal clarity

As a practitioner, a key element is to totally know that what you’re offering is neutral physical contact, for a specific, helpful purpose. 

Any reluctance or discomfort you may feel will certainly be picked up on by the person you’re working with.

If you notice hesitation in this regard, I highly recommend going through a personal balance session, perhaps for a goal along the lines of, “I comfortably offer and receive support through neutral, helpful physical contact.” 

When I work with a client, I stand in the confidence that muscle checking and other kinds of therapeutic physical contact are a helpful component of facilitating a session. I move forward like it's a matter of course in my work (which it is). 

Wishing you all a comfortable, professional connection with your clients! 

With warm regards,

Kathy Brown, M.Ed.
Educational Kinesiologist
Licensed Brain Gym® Instructor/Consultant
Author of Educate Your Brain
BOOK: www.EducateYourBrain.com

1. Cecilia Koester has developed a one-day workshop to teach just these Developmental Building Block Activities, and I am one of the instructors she has authorized to teach it. If this material interests you, you're welcome to contact me about attending an upcoming course or scheduling one specifically for your school, group, or agency.

©Copyright 2019 Kathy Brown. All rights reserved.
Photograph copyright© Laird Brown Photography. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a registered trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation • www.braingym.org

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