top of page
Screenshot 2021-03-26 at 19.26.56.png
writers call to action

Use of Non-verbal Language and ‘Safe’ Touch in Work with Survivors of Abuse

Throughout the process of counselling, the counsellor has to call upon a wide range of skills, not simply personal qualities, but rather skills which have been acquired and developed in training and within the counselling setting.

As therapy with survivors of abuse involves working with what can be extremely harrowing stories, I believe it is essential that the counsellor’s communication skills are well honed in order to avoid the possibility of showing shock, amazement etc. at what could be an inappropriate time for the client, as it may be perceived as judgemental. Reactions need to be dealt with by effective coping mechanisms following the session as well as in supervision.

Although recognised as being important in establishing and maintaining an effective therapeutic relationship, non-verbal communication skills may not always be easy to put into practice.

I recall working with my first ever survivor. Despite the training I had received, I found this to be a huge step – this was a real person who was telling me things which I, and probably most people are really only vaguely aware of largely from the press.

I took a figurative deep breath, remembered that I was here to support this person and, if I was to do so effectively, I had to reach a compromise between hearing the story and not allowing myself to appear shocked, amazed, and dare I say it, even disbelieving. Does this stuff really happen, to real people? When I had answered myself in a very strong affirmative, I knew that things for me and my client were going to be alright. I could cope – and in fact, have gone on to do so for twenty years.

I believe that in work with survivors, the counsellor’s attending behaviour has to shout out – I am in no way going to judge you or think badly of you because of what you have experienced, are experiencing, what has and is being done to you – and what you tell me.

No matter what the words or vocabulary used, an intake of breath, a raised eyebrow, a widening of the eyes may be picked up as being judgemental and, could cause the client to lose trust, feel that I was non-empathic or in extreme cases cause them to end counselling.

Back to that first client, whilst I was actually on a placement as a student counsellor and before I began my voluntary work with survivors. I had worked with this young woman for three separate hour sessions on the loss of a particular friendship. During the fourth session, she disclosed that she had been raped twice and on the fifth she disclosed that she had been sexually abused by her father around the age of 5 – 12. Having told me this, she got up from her chair and went to sit on the floor in the corner. Wow – we hadn’t covered this at college – it was down to what has served me well over the years – good old common sense and allowing ‘me’ to take over and fly by the seat of my pants. First of all, I abandoned my chair, otherwise I would have felt that power would have been an issue for us. I too sat on the floor, grabbing a cushion as I sat down and keeping, what I hoped was a comfortable distance between us. I checked this out and received a nod. I ensured that the sympathy button was firmly in the ‘off’ position and that the empathy button was well tuned in.

She kept her eyes firmly fixed on the bracelet she was running through her fingers. I kept my eyes on the top of her head, ready should she decide to look up – for how would she have felt should she decide that eye contact was safe, only to find my eyes fixed elsewhere. This could have been interpreted as boredom or even a lack of caring on my part. I have to admit to working without eye contact, as I used to work with autistic children. One in particular found eye contact especially difficult. Before I could listen and inter-act with him, I used to gently lift his chin to encourage him to look at me. It was second nature to me, but something I had to ‘unlearn’ when counselling.

‘Safe’ touch

Firstly, what do I mean by ‘safe’? I mean that both giver and receiver are comfortable with the touch. It is seen as non-threatening and especially as non-sexual and without sexual connotations.

So how do I, personally, feel about safe touch? Well, I am a very tactile person. I love to both give and receive hugs and to experience the oxytocin release that accompanies this. One of my coping mechanisms is to go for a massage. If this is not available to me, I will hug and stroke my cat as I have no human equivalent available. If I am with someone who is upset, my natural instinct is to hold their hand or put a comforting arm around them. When wearing my counsellor hat, I have to generally hold this feeling in check in order to maintain boundaries.

The use of ‘safe’ touch in counselling survivors of abuse

When counselling abuse survivors, it becomes even more important to pay careful attention to the reasons for and possible effects of the use of touch, as many have experience and vivid memories of touch which was anything but safe.

Their reaction to this can vary from feeling the need for safe touching as a comfort, especially when having flash backs or nightmares to extreme fearing of touch of any kind, perceiving all as unsafe and as such a threat. Any touch must be under the client’s control – even an initial welcoming handshake or a farewell shoulder touch as they leave to face their world again. Any such touch is always introduced as – ‘I am a feely touchy sort of person – how about you?’ If no, they leave with a warm smile from me and a reassurance that it’s not wrong for them to want ‘safe’ touch. Some offer a hug as they leave after a harrowing session. If they are fine with this, so am I. If there is any doubt on behalf of the counsellor that the touch may be unsafe due to possible sexual overtones, then this must be worked with – and back to supervision – with possible termination of the client contract.

I will cite several occasions when ‘safe’ touch has, in my opinion, been used effectively.

One adult male survivor, who had experienced many years of bullying as well as abuse. It had taken him a good six months to be able to have eye contact during our counselling sessions – we then worked on how people use eye contact in ‘chatting’ situations. He wanted to further the skills he had never developed and asked if I could teach him how to shake hands. We role played this, going from a fishy, wishy washy shake through to a too firm and lingering hand shake. He settled on one with which he was comfortable and would always then greet me with this and a smile.

One young man, a survivor of long term abuse, could not stand touch in any form, he was very protective of his personal space. He would get upset when talking of his children saying that he was unable to hug them and pushed them away if they tried to hug him. It was something that he desperately wanted to change. It took a long time for him to begin to trust me, but, with empathy and patience, it happened. Sometime later, as he was going out of the door, he turned to me and asked if he could have a hug. He is now happy to give and receive even very squishy hugs from his children.

For both clients, they had come to trust that some touch could be safe and this learning took place in the safety of the counselling room and at a pace right for them. They had control.

My third client is a lady I will call Mary. We had been working with Mary’s inner child for several weeks. She was unable to allow herself to use her abuser’s name. One evening, we had to use a different room and it had a stuffed gorilla in the corner. No problem with this until I suggested that she might use the gorilla as a representation of her un-named abuser, kick him out of the room and tell him what she thought of him. Mary froze. Her fear was almost tangible. I promised that I would keep ‘him’ out until she felt ready to confront him. This took several sessions back in our ‘usual’ room. During this time, I had warned my colleague not to be concerned if she heard shouting –and our sessions were always at a time when there were no other clients in the building.

It took several more sessions for Mary to feel ready to confront ‘him’. She arrived at our session with her stuffed rabbit which she used at home as a representation of her inner child. The decision to re-introduce the gorilla had been left firmly in Mary’s court.

She just simply said – ‘I am ready’. I knew exactly what she meant but still checked it out with her. I brought the gorilla through, again checking that she was ok with this, leaving our room door open with the gorilla just inside. As I knew that she liked ‘safe’ touch, I asked if she would like me to hold her hand. She nodded her affirmation as she clutched her rabbit to her bosom with her other hand. She led the way to the gorilla, then stood in front of him, glaring at him. She then kicked him out of the room, yelling and shouting what she felt about him. No holds barred. She then slammed the door. At this point, my colleague removed the gorilla so that Mary didn’t have to see him on her way out. She returned to her chair with me still holding her hand as she sobbed – the first time she had ever ‘allowed’ this to happen. The continued safe touch ‘felt right’ – and she always had the choice to release the hold. Mary had had control and took a huge step with the support of the safe touch of mine – and the rabbit.

I would not have attempted this without knowing how she felt about safe touch and without ensuring that she knew she had control and could change her mind at any point.

As for me – when I had said good-bye to Mary, I rushed through to my colleague shouting – ‘She kicked the bloody gorilla out!!’ To a stranger, a peculiar exclamation. To us, acknowledgement that a client had taken a big, brave step towards moving onward and upward in her life.

PS I did apologise to the gorilla and thank him for the role he had played.


Denise Chadwick. Since retiring from her post as a special needs advisory teacher in 1997, Dee Chadwick has worked as a Counsellor & Hypnotherapist Life Coach in Cheshire working on a range of issues, conditions and preparation classes, as well as working as a voluntary counsellor with survivors of abuse, incest and rape.

You can contact Dee here

*All case studies used are a composite and the identifying details have been changed so that the individuals concerned cannot be recognised.

You might also like..
newsletter sign up.png
Enjoyed reading? ...the Counsellors Café Magazine is free access, please support us to keep the mental health conversation going. 
bottom of page