There is no law against hugs

Anna Fowlie, Chief Executive of the Scottish Social Services Council dispels the myth that it is somehow ‘against the rules’ for social service workers to comfort clients with a touch or a hug.

This article first appeared in Professional Social Work Scotland, November 2015

Anna Fowlie

Anna Fowlie

At its recent European conference in Edinburgh, IFSW’s President, Ruth Stark, asserted that social workers had “been regulated not to give hugs. We need to be empowered to do so.” Ruth was responding to Graeme Morgan from HUG speaking about his need to be held and comforted when he was “desperate and hurting” and Tony McDonald from Who Cares? Scotland recalling how workers were able to physically restrain him but not give him a cuddle.  Both were powerful indictments of the system they relied on. Graeme’s comments related mainly to health services; perhaps the rules are different there.  I hope that the recent developments around re-finding compassion and person-centredness in the NHS will change that. Tony’s experience was of residential childcare.

This debate troubled me and I felt it was an issue that needed exploration. I can’t speak for other parts of the UK, but I can tell you categorically that in Scotland there is no regulation that prevents you hugging someone.  Indeed, I would be concerned if any social service worker didn’t comfort someone in distress or show warmth to a neglected child. When you are in care, you have no one else to offer warmth, comfort and affection. You also need the people working with you to show you what a normal human relationship feels like so you can go on to form those relationships in your own life. As a parent you would be more likely to hug your child than to physically restrain them; how does a care leaver learn how to be a parent if their experience is the reverse? I am reminded of a fantastic mini-drama by the Kibble Education and Care Centre transposing residential care language and behaviour into a family which illustrates the point beautifully that what young people in care experience as normal would be utterly surreal in a family home.

If you look at our Codes of Practice, you’ll find talk of empowerment, promoting independence, valuing diversity etc.  You won’t find anything that restricts normal human behaviour.  Of course there are times when it’s not appropriate to cuddle someone, and sexualised behaviour is always unacceptable in a registrant. But what kind of society have we become if we assume all cuddles are sexual? That all physical contact is dubious?

If a child, an elderly person, someone with mental health problems – pretty much anyone using social services – is distressed, sad, lonely and the thing they need most is a cuddle, why wouldn’t you? You will usually know whether that’s the right thing at the right time.  A residential care home, whether for young people or older people, is just that – the residents’ home. If your home isn’t a place of affection, of attachment, of safety and warmth, is it really a home?

There has been much debate recently about the need for love in the care system.  We all know that children need love, nurturing and affection to thrive.  I believe this is also important to the elderly who may be confused or isolated from their families.  The work being done just now with people with dementia shows that they are much calmer and happier if they have physical contact – even if that is from being able to stroke a cat or a dog.  Love isn’t something you can put in a job description or an employment contract, but to offer comfort, assurance and affection is a natural human instinct and to deny it is inhumane.

And yet the sense of social workers and others not being “allowed” to offer physical comfort prevails.  Perhaps there are employers who ban all physical contact between workers and service users “just in case”. Perhaps there are individual managers who err on the side of caution to avoid the possibility of allegations of inappropriate behaviour.  No doubt there are many people who just absorb the widely held assumptions.  And I can understand why people are cautious in a world where vexatious allegations go viral on social media and litigation feels like a sport. But that doesn’t come from regulation.

I know there are challenges facing workers and their employer about offering something as simple as human comfort, whether it’s holding someone’s hand, touching their shoulder or putting an arm round someone that needs it. It’s not something unique to social services; teachers, nurses and others have the same worries. We need to change that.

If readers have ideas about how we can shift the perceptions and create a climate where appropriate human contact is accepted, I’d be very glad to hear them.


8 Responses to “There is no law against hugs”

  1. Carol Gilmour

    Nov 17. 2015

    If babies are not held how do they know they exist?
    I can’t remember where I read that but it stuck in my mind.
    Children who are traumatised need more holding both physically and mentally.
    They need to know they exist.
    There are practical ways that this can be put into practice at home very naturally and included in any safe caring policy.
    It is inhuman to think that these wee souls (& bigger ones) cannot be hugged or held. Safe hugging and holding might help lessen the need for restraint.
    Indeed if restraint is the only type of holding available it is feasible to imagine that children and young people may have to manufacture situations in which they are held in this way in order to satisfy that need.

    Reply to this comment
  2. sheila ross

    Nov 17. 2015

    I have the privilege of working in early years. I have worked with babies. toddlers and pre schoolers who all need nurturing, love and consistent care. Showing affection , using hugs, cuddles and building trusting relationships are the basis of good childcare. Affection displayed with a child in the presence of a parent allows the child and parent the opportunity to know I care.These affections are genuine and are not affected so parents think we care, we demonstrate our care by displays of affection, kind words, soft nurturing closeness and trust. How can you not hug a distressed child, the upset child, the angry child, the child who says” can I have a cuddle “. The world of social care would be a very bleak environment if we cannot respond appropriately to our client groups and I for one would have no desire to work in such a cold sterile environment
    I also worked for many years in Residential care, some of the young people were the most damaged and damaging children in society. They too needed to be nurtured as there lives had been bereft of love, care and trust. Building trust and building appropriate nurturing relationships was hard but worth the effort as it allowed th young people begin a journey of self discovery whereby they learned the were loveable, could share feelings and begin to feel they had worth as I consistently valued and respected them as individuals and not “troubled” individuals. The social care services will indeed be a bleak sterile service if we go down the route of “no hugs” or appropriate affection or indeed appropriate caring language. Why should feel that we cannot call someone darling or sweet pea.I have had the opportunity to have had relationships with elderly patients, children with additional needs, looked after and accommodate children and babies and toddlers in early years what a wonderful experience that has been filled with hugs, given and received and kind words of endearment both given and received.In a world fraught with tragedy lets hold onto the kindness we can share by offering a smile, a hug, a word of endearment. If we lose this we are lost

    Reply to this comment
  3. Aurelia Lea

    Nov 17. 2015

    I have also heard Graeme speak at a previous Scottish MHO study day and was struck by the same thing. Listening to the poetry of Jo MacFarlane at this year’s day highlighted it again… When did we forget to be human? To me it seems like common sense, I had a woman hug me and thank me recently following the death of her relative and in the past service users I worked with for years hugged me when I was leaving a job, we are taught to be on high alert as a means of professional self preservation but we need to try and balance that with being human… It’s difficult and often depends on the individual worker also… I don’t think it’s something that we can write ‘guidance’ for though?

    Reply to this comment
    • James

      Apr 17. 2016

      I graduated with Community Education and I always remember one of my lecturers telling the class you can’t hug someone, you must keep yourself safe blah blah blah. That message always stuck with me. Its caused alot of debates between myself and colleagues thoughout the years who hug young people. I have never put my arm around a young person due to that warning. There has been times where I have wanted due to things that have happened. This article has given me a new light on how to develop my practice. I for one, will be no longer holding back when comfort hugs are required when a young person needs them. Being a male, I am constantly assessing situations with females to keep myself safe, that won’t change but now I am reassured a hug is good practice.

      Reply to this comment
  4. Karen Mclaughlin

    Nov 18. 2015

    So pleased to be reading this and an extremely important message on behalf of the SSSC. When i worked in LA i sometimes despaired of the “widely held assumptions” which were around, particularly in child care. Even last week at the SCOPT conference there was talk of “not getting emotionally involved” What are we for if its not offering children who are looked after and accommodated both physical and emotional care?

    Reply to this comment
  5. Joan Fraser

    Nov 18. 2015

    Thank you for commonsense and recognition that we are human beings working with other human beings……all of whom need to know there is a caring world for us to belong to; and that we as individuals are all important parts of that world.
    I regularly get a cuddle (or it’s more of a bear hug sometimes), from adult clients, and I could NEVER reject someone with innocent motives displaying welcome or pleasure in this way. I am conscious of the suggestion from Dave Hingsburger that the ‘one armed hug keeps everyone comforted and safe’, but I am also aware that someone may want their hand held or an arm round their shoulder when nervous or upset…….so if that’s the tactile reassurance that gets someone thru’ a tough time – I have no problem with that either. I actually feel honoured that someone will turn to me for help and/or comfort

    Reply to this comment
  6. Connie Sims

    Nov 18. 2015

    Well said Anna. As a manager of a community support service which serves adults with learning disabilities. I would be appalled if Staff didn’t demonstrate caring for the people they provide support to. As long as staff stay within boundaries of support and are aware of the person and their wishes. Person centred care means the person at the centre, some people do not like pet names, hugs or close contact… If staff are truly tuned in to the needs of the person, then the relationship they have with the person will be genuine, caring and effective…

    Reply to this comment
  7. Andrea Gibson

    Nov 21. 2015

    I’m a social worker in children and families and emotional exchanges are a reality of what we do. In terms of how to deal with this I don’t think there can be a rule book, this is when values and ethics of our profession come into action. We are a human service and we need to demonstrate our humanity when helping people through the adversities they face. On a practical level, the two things I think we can do to help ourselves is at our very first visit with a family…. When explaining our roles …..we can explain the nature of our supportive but also statutory role. The second thing we can do is reflect. If we have given someone a hug or held their hand we should always take time to ask ourselves if there was any chance that we misused our power. Was the hug what the individual needed… Or was it more about our own needs in coping with the emotional situation. If ever in doubt discuss this in supervision.

    Reply to this comment

Leave a Reply