• Prince Harry has recently given an interview in which he spoke of wanting to break the cycle of pain he experienced in his own childhood

  • Therapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen explores the concept of intergenerational trauma and the role therapy plays in healing

  • We have therapists and counsellors who specialise in working with childhood difficulties and trauma – find yours here

Prince Harry is in trouble in the media. Dr Max Pemberton, an NHS psychiatrist, identified Harry’s recent pronouncements as a sign he has had too much therapy. As a therapist, you might expect me to disagree. In fact, I do. I think he has not had enough of the therapy that helps us come to terms with our history, however painful. 

Ideally, therapy enables us to grieve and mourn our past. It is not a quick fix, and it can take time. Harry has been brought up in a very special world. There are traditions, strict rules along with, of course, huge privilege. He was born into this life, and I am sure he didn’t really imagine or perhaps see how he could leave it. Sadly, and rather foolishly perhaps, there isn’t an established roadmap for leaving this structure. Haunted by the terrible example of the Duke of Windsor, Prince Harry’s attempts to separate are being seen as more catastrophic than they perhaps have to be.

Harry married a woman who sees his life through a very different lens. Whether you agree with how she has handled their situation, she is not caught up or indeed heavily influenced by the tradition of his position. Harry has never had the freedom to be ordinary or to be anonymous. Yes, he is insanely rich and famous but how many of us could imagine having so little privacy, having to keep our words and behaviour away from prying eyes. 

Harry is now in America away from the restraint of palace life. It is a new world, and he has unsurprisingly become somewhat incontinent. It is an environment where being in therapy is accepted as very normal. It must feel very liberating to him. He is able to see his former life in a different light and he feels he has permission to speak. He won’t be the first in his family to do this. Both his parents gave very revealing interviews on television. Prince Charles in his television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby described his own grim childhood experiences. I am not underestimating the trauma of being raised in such a publicised unhappy marriage nor the death of his mother when he was so very young. He is obviously angry with Prince Charles and Camilla, and who can blame him? Decent people can do horrible things. He is right that his family story has been passed on down to him and caused him pain and unhappiness. Philip Larkin describes this brilliantly in his poem ‘This Be the Verse’. His first two lines say:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do”

Larkin goes on to describe in his next verse what Harry calls ‘genetic pain’ or which a therapist might call ‘intergenerational trauma’.

“But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,”

In his final verse Larkin’s predictions are bleak.

“Man hands on misery to man.

 It deepens like a coastal shelf.”

His advice is to get out of your family as quickly as you can and don’t have children.

Can Larkin’s predictions be evaded? It is easy to understand the concept of ‘genetic pain’ or ‘intergenerational trauma’ but very much more difficult to avoid repeating it in one form or another. That is the point of therapy.

Prince Harry has seen the ‘light’ but because this process is happening in the full glare of the media, it has the potential to do great damage to his current family relationships. He thinks he is doing his children a favour and ending the ‘genetic’ pain. He has moved to another country, another world, and they will live a different sort of existence. I am sure life outside the Royal Family is in many ways easier and less complicated. But children also need, where it is possible, to have access to their extended families. I am not talking about families where there has been violence and abuse but generally access to family members is very important for a sense wellbeing. If you cut your children off from wider family life it is a real and serious deprivation. By using his title, Prince Harry keeps his connection and privilege but if he cannot provide his children access to their great-grandparent, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, then the ‘genetic pain’ continues.

Hopefully when Harry has had sufficient support and help, he will be able to have real compassion for himself and the pain he suffered in his childhood. This will likely also help him to also have compassion for his family who as Larkin put it ‘were fucked up in their turn’.

By then, being able to expand the sense of tragedy to include his extended family, there might be hope for the healing of relationships as well as ending the repetition of trauma and relationship rupture passed down through the generations.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a verified welldoing.org therapist in London and online

Further reading

Harry and Meghan and universal family dynamics

How to avoid repeating your parents mistakes

How to keep from turning into your parents

How childhood shame shapes adult identity

The lasting impact of adverse childhood experience