The significance of touch and adolescent mental health

An article, written by Principal Clinical Psychologist Colby Pearce, which originally appeared on Colby’s blog site Attachment and Resilience.

If only I knew then what I know now! This sentiment particularly applies to the third in a series of posts on this site about published articles that arose out of the collaboration between Professor Graham Martin and myself between 1991 and 1995. The article in question is the following: Pearce, C.M., Martin., G., & Wood, K. (1995). Significance of Touch for Perceptions of Parenting and Psychological Adjustment Among Adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 34 : 160-167.

Another publication in the prestigious Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry! We were on a roll and I clearly recall Graham’s disappointment that I chose Clinical Psychology over a career in mental health research.

In this paper we published results of our investigations into the role of physical contact experience in perceptions of parenting and psychological adjustment among adolescents. I loved writing this paper as it gave me a chance to revisit the ideas and implications of the seminal work of Harry Harlow on the role of contact comfort in infant rhesus monkeys (Harlow, H.J. (1958). The Nature of Love. American Psychologist, 13:673-685); work that I would again revisit when writing A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder.

Not surprisingly, what we found was that self-reported physical contact experience from parents was related to perceptions of parental care and psychological adjustment among adolescents. That is, the more frequent positive contact experiences (e.g. hugs) and the less frequent negative contact experiences (e.g. smacking), the better the perception of parental care and the lower the incidence of depression, conduct problems, suicidal ideation and deliberate self-harm.

The reason why I lamented not knowing then what I know now at the start of this post relates to how I would discuss these results in the context of my knowledge of Attachment Theory and Child Protection. Of particular significance to me is the role of contact comfort in the perception of parental care and the promotion of positive adjustment among adolescents (and, people of all ages).

Anyway, we live and we learn, and this was still an important step in my knowledge development and in my career development.