In a recent column which appeared in The Apostle, the monthly newsletter of the Youth Apostles Institute, Dr. Eduardo Azcarate talked about one of the unfortunate side effects of the sexual abuse scandal, namely, that it is almost forbidden for an adult to touch a child, regardless of the intent.
This is a tremendous predicament for Azcarate, a clinical psychologist in Falls Church for more than 20 years and the founder of the Youth Apostles Institute, who is well-known among family and friends for his trademark hugs. He also considers it a devastating development for the emotional and physical health of our children.
Azcarate points out that well-known psychologist Virginia Satir said that a person needs four hugs a day in order to survive, eight hugs for adequate living and 12 to thrive. “I try to reach the 12 mark,” Azcarate said, “but some days I run short.
“Jesus was an expert at touching and being touched and His touch brought about healing,” said Azcarate, who believes in the healing power of touch. “Hurt children look for their parent’s touch and kiss, which seem to alleviate their pain and worry.”
The horror of child molestation has changed the emotional landscape for parents and those who work with children. “Rarely do we find a touch presented in the popular media without heavy doses of eroticism,” Azcarate said. “Harassment has driven touch from the workplace; we have become defensive and self-conscious about every kind of touch and hug.”
Azcarate said teachers, counselors and adults are too scared to touch any child. They fear the gesture will be interpreted as seductive or abusive.
“It is unspeakably cruel to abuse a child,” he said. “I have helped victims deal with the horrible consequences of abuse and have cried with them, empathizing with their pain and suffering. But it is also cruel to deny a child a pat on the back, an arm around the shoulder, or a hug that would express our care for them as their parents, pastors, teachers, youth ministers, or mentors. I believe it is unhealthy to grow up untouched, suspicious that every touch has a sexual implication.
“Emotionally, physically and sexually abused children have trouble accepting others’ touches and are nervous about the consequences; at the same time, a great deal of healing comes when a hug is finally accepted.”
Society can’t allow abusers and the media to continue to damage the lives of children and adolescents, Azcarate said. “We need to bring the pendulum back. We must act prudently and righteously toward our children, rather than with reticence and paranoia. The failure of good people to build up children with warmth and hugs will not make abusers disappear. But the absence of the good touch may actually make children more vulnerable to abuse by depriving them of the warmth they need and long for.”
Azcarate said those who work with children and adolescents take a great risk when they touch or hug a minor. “But life is full of risks and our children need our loving support,” he said. “We must challenge our children and ourselves to understand the value of the touch to the healthy development of every human being. We must also remember the need to be prudent and upright, to respect a child’s choice regarding touches and hugs, and to be open to communicate our values to them and to their parents.”
(Michael F. Flach is editor of the Arlington Catholic Herald, where this article first appeared.)