Home Book Reviews Therapeutic Touch: Research, Practice and Ethics

Therapeutic Touch: Research, Practice and Ethics


Edited by Martin Rovers, Judith Malette, and Manal Guirguis-Younger

Reviewed by Nancy Eichhorn

Touch is essential to human life. From the earliest writings by Ashley Montaqu (1971) who discussed the importance of nurturing touch to help babies thrive physiologically and emotionally to a recent study lead by Nathalie Maitre at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio that demonstrated the significance of sensory experiences in early life on brain development— physical attention during a baby’s development, during our entire lives in fact, is important—the more you hug and cuddle your babies, the more their brains grow.

According to Maitre, our sensory system supporting touch and bodily sensation is the earliest to develop in human beings; further, it forms the basis for other sensory development as well as our cognitive and social development. Maitre’s study established that nurturing touch is essential for infant development with study outcome demonstrating that positive proper touch increased brain activity while negative touch (pin pricks, tube insertions) decreased brain activity.

As human beings, we crave touch. There’s an instinctive need to feel another—be it a lover’s hand, a mother’s breast. The soft fuzz of an animal’s fur, even the gristle of a father’s beard can create pleasurable sensations when contact is loving and supportive. As body psychotherapists, many of us acknowledge the value of appropriate touch in the therapeutic setting—of course within proper boundaries and acceptable containment and with the client’s permission. As therapists, we must be clear about why we want to integrate touch, discuss what kind of touch, and for whose purpose the touch is occuring (certainty not to make the therapist feel better!).

Although experts agree that touch is valuable for our health and mental well being, there are rules/regulations in the United States regarding touch itself. Namely doctors, nurses, and licensed massage therapists can touch another human being legally; no one else can, however. Yet, many psychotherapists understand the value of human contact and look for safe ways to incorporate touch into their clinical practice. Guidance is welcome and needed.

Martin Rovers, Judith Malette, and Manal Guirguis-Younger (2017) offer their thoughts on touch in their new anthology entitled, Therapeutic Touch: Research, Practice and Ethics, from the University of Ottawa Press. Divided into four parts, the book’s contributors and the editors who are also writers themselves, tackle the: Theory of Touch, the Practice of Touch in Psychology; the Price of Touch in a Spectrum of Practice; and the Ethics of Touch (and their conclusion). Each chapter is relatively short yet densely packed with pertinent data written with a philosophical tone. The authors invite readers into their text with the following quote: “Enjoy your walk in this rich garden of touch” (pg. 6).

A look at the book

Whoever decided the layout and design and the formatting and font size were clearly reader conscious. They designed each of the 12 chapters and the conclusion to be easily accessible via the Table of Contents—each topic within the chapter has a page assigned to it, even if it’s only one page in length. You know for instance that in Chapter 1:

Touch Deprivation and Counseling as Healing Touch is on page 13
What is Touch is on page 14
Touch deprivation is on page 15
Touch deprivation and attachment begins on page 18
Counseling as healing touch starts on 21
Healing Touch in Couples Counseling begins on 23
Case study 1 is on 25
Case Study 2 is on 26
And the chapter Conclusion comes on page 27

Short, compact, precise. Every word counts. Plus, each chapter has its own reference list; readers do not have to hunt in the back through a lengthy list. Clean, clear. I appreciated the short to-the-point chapters and the ability to flip to a page that resonated with me while reading. Starting on page 6, the authors offer a detailed outline of the book, always a welcome device in my mind. As a reader I have clarity and direction, which I appreciate. Their overview introduces the contributors, their topics and focus, and offers insight into what the chapter attempts to impart. Case studies support each chapter bringing the content to life.

In the final part, ethics and the conclusion, the editors offer that authors Marilyn Guindon, Reesa Packard, and Natalie Charron caution “practitioners and academics against a naïve understanding as touch as helpful” (pg. 8).

Their conclusion offers a synthesis of the previous 12 chapters as well as an integrative overview. The editors offer closing remarks where they note that touch does indeed help us thrive, yet abusive touch and touch deprivation have quite the opposite effect. They also highlight the difficulties of discussing touch with clients “as it might raise defensiveness and insecurity in the client” (pg. 8).

Some snapshots of what you will read:

Healing touch is explored in individual and couples counseling (page 21).

Touch that is sensitively utilized by a skilled and well-trained counselor can assist I-self regulation, considered an absent characteristic of traumatized clients. Adhering to safety principles and acquiring knowledge about nervous system regulation as well as threat response cycle supports the foundation for integrating touch into counseling (page 23)

Thinking about touch . . . thought and touch are closely related

A demonstration of two anthropological approaches to the study of symbolic touch as it relates to the understanding of professional boundaries in psychotherapy (pg. 51)

A brief approach on the meaning of touch from a philosophical point of view. Two Christian biblical texts are discussed where touch plays a critical role (69). The authors’ goal was to deepen understanding of touch in biblical stories and in daily life. It is considered an “existential hermeneutical reflection”.

Touch is beneficial when the client feels in control of the touch and the intervention meets the client’s needs and not the needs of the psychotherapist (222)

Therapists need to bring up touch with clients, what it is therapeutically speaking, how might it be beneficial in the helping relationship, and for what purpose,

Contraindications of touch are discussed on pages 223-224

Guidelines and recommendations are offered, but are based on the Canadian system

In conclusion

According to the editors, “touch is an extremely significant human experience and perhaps one of the most susceptible to interpretation” (pg. 237). They add that, “touch lies at the heart of our human development, of our experience of self, of our encounter with the world; and naturally touch comes into the play in the healing relationships like counseling and spiritual care. Yet it remains difficult to discuss touch as part of the human dynamic in the helping relationship and is left out of the clinical conversation” (pg. 237).

They offer their reasoning for the absence of clear communication about the use of touch in therapy. One involves the therapist’s theoretical orientation around touch, another involves the complex issues regarding touch and client vulnerability. They cite professional boundaries and ethical concerns, risk management and more. Per their reasoning, this lack of conversation leads to a lack of clear guidelines from professional colleges around issues of touch other than the simple statement: do not touch. Their closing goal was to summarize the themes covered, to highlight some areas of touch. And to offer their thanks to the contributors who offered various perspectives on the role and place of touch in helping relationships.


Reference for the Ohio Study:

Dempsey-Jones, Harriet. (2017). Touch in infancy is important for healthy brain development. Retrieved 3.18.2017 from: