Signs Someone Is Touch Starved
People who grow up with touch starved parents are more likely than others to experience a range of negative emotional and behavioral symptoms, according to new research published in the Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry.
The study is based on data from over 1,000 U.S.-based adolescents and young adults, all of whom participated in an online survey about their relationships with caregivers. Researchers found that people whose caregivers were emotionally uninvolved or had difficulty showing affection were more likely to report experiencing a variety of symptoms including anxiety, stress, depression, low self-esteem, poor sleep quality, problems making friends, feeling lonely, and having trouble trusting others. The researchers also discovered that these individuals tended not to have close friendships, romantic partners, or strong family bonds.
“We know that early experiences can lead to long-term consequences like psychological distress and risk for health conditions later in life,” says co-author Dr. Robert D. Latzman, professor at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “This study suggests there may be some additional risks associated with how we handle our own feelings when those around us don’t respond in kind.”
Latzman and his colleagues conducted two surveys of adolescents and young adult participants (ages 16 to 26) between 2010 and 2012. In one survey, they asked questions about whether participants felt loved by their parent(s), had good feelings toward their caregiver, experienced conflict, and received comfort and support from them. At the same time, researchers assessed participants’ mental health using standard measures such as depressive symptoms, loneliness, and social isolation. They then compared these results with information gathered during interviews and questionnaires completed after six years.
At this point, participants were approximately age 22, which allowed researchers to examine changes in their mood and behavior over time. While most of the respondents reported positive experiences with their parents, almost half said they did not feel loved by them, and a quarter said they often fought with them. More than 70 percent of teens and young adults said they didn’t receive much comfort or support from their parents, while nearly 50 percent said they frequently experienced conflict with them.
Over 60 percent of the participants described themselves as unhappy and stressed out, while 40 percent said they felt depressed. About 15 percent admitted to being angry or hostile with their parents on a weekly basis. Almost 10 percent of participants said they didn’t get along well with other people, and just under 3 percent said they avoided spending time alone with anyone, even friends.
In addition to the negative emotions and behaviors noted above, people who grew up without receiving enough love and affection were also significantly less satisfied with their lives overall. They also rated lower on measures of happiness and self-worth. And they reported poorer physical health, including increased rates of headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, and muscle aches. Their immune systems seemed compromised as well, given their higher levels of infectious disease symptoms. People with deprived backgrounds also had worse cardiovascular health, with greater odds of obesity, high cholesterol, and hypertension.
While it’s possible that all of these issues stem from neglectful parenting, the authors say their findings suggest that people who lack affectionate interactions with parents and caregivers may develop different patterns of attachment and coping skills as children. These differences, in turn, could increase the likelihood of developing certain psychological and physiological vulnerabilities later in life.
Dr. Rachel C. Fruin, assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, believes the new paper offers important insights into why so many people struggle in today’s world. She was not involved in the research but has studied similar themes in her own work.
“I think that the main takeaway here is that healthy development requires healthy environments,” she explains via email. “When someone doesn’t receive what they need in order to thrive — loving attention, acceptance, validation, help navigating difficult situations — this can set them up to struggle.”
Fruin notes that while neglectful parenting might contribute to some of these challenges, the new research shows that it isn’t the sole culprit. Rather, she says, people should consider their unique histories and learn effective ways to cope with stressful circumstances.
If you’re struggling with any of these issues, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or access the International Association For Suicidology’s resources here. If you’d prefer to talk to a therapist about your concerns, call the American Psychological Association’s helpline at 800-932-2433. You can also text TAKEPROBLEM to 741-741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.
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