Prince Harry’s cloistered childhood: Experts explain how lack of physical affection stunts kids

Prince Harry’s memoir “Spare” has titillated followers of the British royal family, with eye-popping revelations about life as a royal serving as tabloid fodder for weeks now. The autobiography is stunningly confessional, though some of his admissions are more surprising than others.

Yet as a new mom and a health journalist reading his memoir, I was most surprised by the lack of physical affection that Harry says he received (or rather, didn’t receive) from his family as a child. My four-and-half-month-old already loves climbing on me as though I were a human jungle gym; there is something rather bleak about the way Harry describes his touch-avoidant childhood.

Certainly the British nobility are stereotyped as unemotional, reserved and stoic. But even in the darkest moments of Harry’s life — like when his father King Charles delivered the devastating news about his mother’s death — Harry says he didn’t receive so much as a hug. “Pa didn’t hug me,” Prince Harry wrote. “He wasn’t great at showing emotions under normal circumstances, how could he be expected to show them in such a crisis?”

Apparently the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as his “Granny,” the late Queen Elizabeth II, wasn’t very affectionate either. “I wanted to hug her, though of course I didn’t,” Harry wrote about his grandmother at a royal engagement. “I never had done and couldn’t imagine any circumstance under which such an act might be sanctioned.” Yes, she was the Queen of England, but she was also a grandmother. As someone who just lost her grandmother as well, one of the things I cherished the most about her was her warm hugs.

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Beyond being tragic, there are real psychological consequences from a lack of physical touch that can carry over into adulthood. Psychologists say that a lack of physical affection can impact a child’s development and have long-lasting effects. And when a child goes an extended period of time without affection, starting as a baby, there may be physical, mental and emotional consequences.

In 1922, one of the earliest studies to emphasize the benefits of touch found that rats who were infrequently touched were more timid and high-strung than those who were petted. In other words, the biological need for touch even transcends species. As researchers noted in a 2010 study, “touch has emerged as an important modality for the facilitation of growth and development,” and this had been “demonstrated in a wide range of organisms, from worm larvae to rat pups to human infants,” they wrote.

“Harlow’s monkey studies in the late 1950s underscored the importance of touch and healthy contact in development. Monkeys deprived of touch and connection suffered dire psychological and physical consequences.”

One of the most famous experiments attempting to assess the importance of touch happened in the 1950s, when psychologist Harry Harlow placed baby monkeys in isolation with two surrogate “mothers.” One was covered in cloth, and one was made of wire; only the wire “mother” offered the baby food. The baby monkeys spent most of their time cuddling up to the cloth surrogate, challenging the idea that a baby’s bond with their caregiver simply came from the baby’s need for food. Instead, it highlighted the biological need for touch.

“It’s important to note that Harlow’s monkey studies in the late 1950s underscored the importance of touch and healthy contact in development,” Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy From Fear,” told Salon. “Monkeys deprived of touch and connection suffered dire psychological and physical consequences.” Manly said these studies were “groundbreaking,” as they supported the truth that physical touch and emotional attunement are necessary from early childhood.

“When children don’t receive appropriate emotional connection as children, mental health issues can surface.”

Today, research around attachment theory provides more fodder on the importance of affectionate, healthy touch from a caregiver. It goes without saying that touch can be invasive — but healthy, wanted affection from parents is critical to a child’s development. Manly explained that the concept of insecure attachment and secure attachment result from a child’s interactions with their caregivers and parents early in life.

“When a child’s parents or caregivers engage in attuned interactions the brain is sculpted in ways that support healthy intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics,” Manly said. “When children don’t receive appropriate emotional connection as children, mental health issues can surface.”

Manly said when a child feels more attuned to their caregivers early in life, they will feel “stronger, more secure, and more worthy compared to those who received a lack of appropriate attunement.” 

“However, when a child is deprived of healthy, attuned interactions—such as a lack of affection or touch—insecure attachment generally results,” Manly said. “The child will adopt coping methods that may include shutting down, engaging in attention-seeking behavior, heightened connection to those who appear emotionally or physically available, and approach-avoidant behaviors.”

In any case, psychologists postulate that showing affection such as giving a hug to a child can help them regulate their emotions and help their brains develop because it releases oxytocin, which can in turn decrease anxiety, stress and depression.

“Children who experience more functional touch and less aggressive touch were less likely to show symptoms of poor psychological adjustment,” researchers concluded in a 2011 study. “These findings are consistent with the assumption that children of parents who are more responsive, including through touch, are less likely to suffer from emotional and behavioral problems.”

Manly added that children who are deprived of a healthy connection with a caregiver might experience increased anxiety, emotional dysregulation, depression, and even suicidality later in life. However, not all is lost for these children when they become adults.

“The emotionally neglected child is not doomed to a lifetime of dysfunction or inner turmoil,” Manly said. “Those who receive consistent, loving support and psychological assistance often heal and move on to form healthy relationships in adulthood.”

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