Feature Stories



Touching lives

4/10/2008 10:56:39 AM | by Jessie Milligan | PRINT VERSION | PDF VERSION

Susan Ramirez says we need to stop looking at the past through 21st-century goggles.

An inch of skin holds more than 1,000 nerve endings, each sparking messages to the brain. Gentle touch from one human to another — a hug, a rub on the neck — is so powerful that over time it is enough to change brain chemistry and alter human behavior.

Yet despite years of research showing its benefits, we live in a hands-off culture with a deeply rooted aversion to touch, say Karyn Purvis and fellow researcher David Cross of The Institute of Child Development at TCU.

Touch has become so “sexualized” that a first grade teacher can’t hug the tears away when a student cries. Touch is diminished in busy households and child-care centers where young children are left fend for themselves.

In the midst of the cultural milieu come Purvis and Cross, who find that lack of “safe” touch is as harmful as the “bad” touch of physical or sexual abuse. They address it in a new DVD and “touch manual” for Child Protective Service workers in Texas, as well as therapists, teachers and students.

It seems simple enough, yet touch sends transformative psychological and biological messages of well-being to our brains. not only sparks emotions but it sends the stress-indicating hormone cortisol spiraling downward and increases the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain.

“Touch communicates value, it communicates safety and it communicates connection. It says ‘I really hear you. I really care,’ ” Purvis says. “Touch calls life up in the people who are giving and receiving it.”

The right kind of touch, Purvis and Cross say, can even ward off mental illness.

Its implications are so profound that touch is a big factor of Purvis and Cross’s research into what they call “trust-based relational intervention,” a way to heal children who have suffered abuse or neglect.

The good news is that touch does heal. The hard part is changing the cultural perceptions about touch, yet that is exactly what Purvis and Cross aim to do.

Touchy subject

Research in the 1950s and 1960s by psychologist Harry Harlow, director of the primate lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, showed rhesus monkeys raised in isolation developed mental illness. But when exposed to non-threatening touch the animals recovered. The psychopathology begun by touch deprivation was reversed.

At the time they were released, the Harlow findings landed in a North American culture that was not fully ready to accept the importance of touch.

Since the 1920s, the one school of thought held that too much attention and affection paid to babies would inhibit their ability to grow up as independent adults. Psychologist John B. Watson, considered the father of the behaviorism, wrote books on how to raise children where he advised that hugging and kissing of children should be avoided. In some families, babies were not comforted when they cried.

Examining that culture, Purvis and Cross determined that that attempt to raise emotionally steely children was actually harmful.

“They learn that their cry doesn’t matter,” Purvis says. They learn frustration and later learn not to use words but anger or manipulation to get what they want.

Neglect, Purvis and Cross say, is as bad as abuse.

“Just as damaging as physical abuse or sexual abuse is being deprived of normal, human healthy contact, interaction and touch,” Cross says on the DVD Healing Touch released this spring by The Institute of Child Development (ICD), part of the Center for Applied Psychology at TCU.

Purvis and Cross are working to make cracks in misconceptions about touch that are cemented in U.S. culture.

In championing safe touch, Purvis and Cross face an array of difficulties.

They have known of cases where great-grandmothers were victims of incest and then have passed that fear of touch down through generations in their own family’s culture.

They have seen children undergo early medical procedures who learn that touch can hurt, yet are not consoled afterward.

They have seen busy families whose baby is left in a crib with a bottle propped up but with no cradling comfort when they are fed.

Most pervasive, they say, is that touch has become sexualized. A first-grade teacher can no longer hug a crying child for fear that it will be seen as inappropriate. In later years, a coworker can’t put a hand on another’s shoulder for fear that it will be seen as harassment.

In ongoing research, Purvis and Cross have seen measurable differences in body chemistry when children are exposed to safe touch, and that chemistry is linked to changes in behavior.

Stress levels drop. Fear subsides. A child becomes better able to bond, to learn, to share.

Parents find the connection between brain functioning and behavior comforting. They understand more about why a child, particularly a child who came from “a hard place” of neglect or abuse, might wipe off a kiss or not function well socially.

“They learn the child isn’t just being willful. The child has changes in his brain,” Purvis says.

“If they understand that behavior is part of neurochemistry they have more compassion,” Cross says.

It is compassion that is the heart of Purvis and Cross’ mission.

Getting the word out

You can almost picture Purvis as she trained orphanage workers in infant massage at the Mother Teresa Home of Hope in Rwanda last fall.

Her voice would be soft, her touch gentle, her smile at the ready.

Massage helps establish a feeling of well-being and safety, she told them.  all, Purvis trained 140 African orphanage and foster care workers in the benefits of massage.

Massage helps establish a feeling of well-being and safety, she told them. They eat better. They sleep better.

She brought the message of the importance of touch to government officials, judges and doctors in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Kigali as well as in Rwanda, where she met with Jeanette Kagame, the president’s wife.

Massage, Purvis and Cross point out, works well not just with children in substitute care but also with premature babies in incubators and for children in hospital care, as well as all children everywhere.

A massage session with a child sets up a time of controlled touch where older children can set boundaries by saying what feels good and what doesn’t.

The trip to Africa allowed Purvis to train only a small portion of the child care workers and families whom she hopes to reach. Which is why the importance of touch is the central point of the first in a series of Healthy Family DVDs the ICD released this spring. The DVD Healing Touch is being distributed to the Child Protective Service in Texas, as well as therapists and school teachers and others across the U.S.

Purvis, the director of The Institute of Child Development, and Cross, the director of TCU’s Developmental Research Laboratory, also are writing a “touch manual” designed to offer guidelines on the importance of touch and how to introduce it in children’s’ lives.

Purvis and Cross’ studies of brain chemistry and behavior continue, just as they have since they established Hope Connection in 1999. The summer camp for adopted children, known as Camp Hope, paved the way for creating The Institute for Child Development in 2005.

“At Camp Hope,” Purvis says, “hugs are part of the curriculum.”      


For information, go to www.child.tcu.edu.

Contact the ICD at Child@tcu.edu.

Comment tcumagazine@tcu.edu.


Karyn Purvis is the director of the Institute of Child Development, which focuses on research-based interventions for vulnerable children.  She received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees at TCU. Dr. Purvis travels around the world training families and professional child-care workers. She is not only the new chair of the Committee of Licensing Standards for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, but also is an advisory board member of the Texas Association of Infant Mental Health. She is co-author of The Connected Child.

David Cross is the associate director of the Institute of Child Development, where supervises the research activities.  He also is director of the Developmental Research Laboratory.  He is a professor in the psychology department and co-author of The Connected Child. He earned his undergraduate degree at California State University, Fresno. He received his master’s degrees in psychology and statistics at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as well as doctoral degrees in education and psychology. He joined TCU’s department of psychology in 1985.