The Lasting Damage of Depriving a Child of Human Touch

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Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Between mid-April, when the Trump administration began implementing its “zero-tolerance” policy of separating immigrant families at the U.S. border, and the end of last month, 1,995 children were forcibly taken from their parents or caregivers. As of last week, according to the the Washington Post, more than 11,000 immigrant children were in federal custody, a figure that included both kids who came to the U.S. alone and those who were separated from their families upon arrival.

There’s no shortage of disturbing details that have emerged from the detention centers where these children are being held: They’re sleeping in cages. They have no idea if or when they’ll see their parents again. In one case, a baby was ripped away from its mother during breastfeeding. Just today, the Associated Press broke the news that the youngest kids are being held in separate “tender age” facilities. And earlier this week, Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, added a fresh horror to add to the list: Workers at these centers are apparently not allowed to touch the children.

Kraft — who said in a CNN interview earlier this week that the family-separation policy is “nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse” — told the Post that she was informed of the no-touch rule while visiting a shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement:

Inside a room dedicated to toddlers was a little girl no older than 2, screaming and pounding her fists on a mat. One woman tried to give her toys and books to calm her down, but even that shelter worker seemed frustrated, Kraft told The Washington Post, because as much as she wanted to console the little girl, she couldn’t touch, hold or pick her up to let her know everything would be all right.

It’s a restriction with repercussions that can ripple out well beyond the moment of distress. It goes without saying that not all forms of touch are beneficial: Touch can be invasive, and it can be violent. But affectionate touch, in particular, is a necessary ingredient for humans to thrive — and when we go without it over an extended period of time, the physical, mental, and emotional consequences can be severe and long-lasting.

One of the most famous experiments on the effects of touch deprivation took place at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, when psychologist Harry Harlow placed baby rhesus monkeys in enclosures with two surrogate “mothers.” Both figures were made of wire, but one was also covered in cloth; even when the wire structure was the one set up to provide the monkeys with food, Harlow observed, they would still spend most of their time cuddling with the cloth structure, challenging the commonly held idea that a baby’s bond with its mother stemmed from its need for food.

When Harlow split his monkeys into two groups, one with cloth-covered mothers and the other with mothers made only of wire, a dramatic difference began to emerge — while the monkeys housed with more figures had normal reactions to fear, the others seemingly lacked the ability to soothe themselves, staying in a heightened, more intense state of terror for longer. A lack of regular touch, he concluded, had knocked something askew in their development.

For obvious ethical reasons, we don’t have any similar studies on lack of touch in human subjects, though plenty of studies over the years have affirmed the importance of touch for healthy emotional development across the human lifespan. But in the 1990s, researchers discovered a naturally occurring, and heartbreaking, large-scale case of touch deprivation in kids: In Romania, where national policies on childbearing led to a skyrocketing birth rate, thousands of unwanted children were raised in crowded orphanages with little to no physical human contact. Harvard researchers Mary Carlson and Felton Earls, who traveled to Romania to examine the effects of this type of environment, later described “the muteness, blank facial expressions, social withdrawal, and bizarre stereotypic movements” they observed.

Developmental psychologist Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, has made her own research trips to Romanian orphanages; the children she saw there, she says, were physically and mentally stunted, with heights and weights well below normal for their age. “They were extremely mentally delayed on cognitive tests,” she recalls, “and they walked around behaving like children you’d see with severe autism. They didn’t make eye contact, they didn’t talk, they didn’t smile … these are kids who may get touch on a regular basis, but not enough.”

Here’s how the calming power of touch works on a physiological level: Touch stimulates pressure receptors under the skin that carry signals to the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the rest of the body. The vagus nerve, in turn, uses those signals to slow down the nervous system, lowering heart rate and blood pressure and curbing the activity of the stress hormone cortisol, an immune-system suppressant. Being touched also triggers a rush of the neurotransmitters serotonin, a lack of which has been linked to depression, and dopamine, which regulates pleasure.

When a person is deprived of touch, on the other hand, these things don’t happen: The vagus nerve doesn’t calm the body into lowering heart rate and blood pressure; cortisol, with its immune-destroying power, isn’t kept in check; and those neurotransmitters don’t kick in to regulate our mood and emotional state. If touch helps keep a person healthy, then lack of it — especially in cases of heightened trauma or suffering — can literally make them ill.

And over time, it all accumulates. While we don’t know exactly how long it takes for the effects of touch deprivation to manifest into something long-lasting, Field says she’s come across cases in her research where a child temporarily starved of their typical levels of touch — whether they had a parent away on a trip, or they were separated in school from a best friend they often cuddled with — began to show signs of depression within a few days.

“Their depression symptoms are just like adults. They stop eating, they stop sleeping …. I would be very concerned about children who have been on the border since April, because now we’re getting in to months,” she says. “These kids are going to be clamoring, crying for touch, and they’re not getting it.”

The Lasting Damage of Depriving a Child of Human Touch