The theme of this year’s children’s mental health week is ‘Let’s Connect’. The choice of theme reflects our increasing awareness of the centrality of good relationships to mental and emotional well-being, both for children and adults.
In 1938 Harvard University began a project to discover more about how people develop and thrive – and what makes them happy. The participants came from all walks of life – from the very privileged to young people from families living in the poorest communities – and most, if not all, of the original 724 adolescents in the study are now dead. However, the research continues with their children and grandchildren – making it the longest study of human development and thriving ever undertaken.
Last month, Penguin published the latest offering from the Harvard team: ‘The Good Life’ by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. In it, they share their finding that, across the socio-economic spectrum, it is the quality and quantity of human connection that is the most significant factor in achieving a sense of well-being. I quote: ‘Here’s what science can tell you … Good relationships keep us happier, healthier and help us live longer. This is true across the lifespan and across cultures.’ They acknowledge that poverty and poor health and wars impact quality of life, but if you have secure attachments within the family, good friendships with peers and good relationships with work colleagues (or even just one of these) you will come through, live longer – and be happy.
At some gut level I suspect you already knew this – as I did. But when it is presented as rigorous scientific research (as opposed to belly-brain commonsense!) it does raise all sorts of questions – for example, about the demands of the job market that sees people relocating away from family and friendship networks, and issues around working from home (yes, it means you can have a puppy – but your mental health may still suffer as you work away from direct contact with colleagues).
And what about our own area of shared interest? Fostering has always been a work-from-home career and those who are full-time foster parents do sometimes complain of social isolation, despite the fact they may have several children under their roof. Children’s Services and private fostering agencies usually provide fostering support groups and annual get-togethers and socials so that links between foster parents can be forged and promoted. Links with other like-minded people can also be a lifeline, particularly where your extended family members are of the opinion that you are ‘mad’ to do this work.
Equally important in the light of this research is surely how we help children and young people in care to keep in touch with friends and previous, nurturing foster parents when they are moved elsewhere, for whatever reason. The Americans call such connected people ‘fictive kin’ because they are often at least as important as birth family members for some children in care. Children’s services sometimes discourage such connections, fearful that they might compromise the child’s settling in at their new home – but if this is a child who has learnt to feel safe in our family and has progressed to a place where they are increasingly secure in their relationship with us, then to load their bags and baggage into their social worker’s car and wave good-bye is likely to effectively disconnect them from the nurture we provided and confirm their original belief that all adults are untrustworthy and will ultimately abandon you.
While social media may provide a solution to this disconnect, allowing children to keep in touch with friends and foster families they have left behind, the Harvard study found that such a connection also meant that people were less engaged with those who were physically present. So social media typically increases the quantity of connection (the young person who tells you they have four hundred friends – on TikTok) at the expense of quality (this is the same young person who stands alone in the school playground at breaktime). So when we are thinking about how we connect with the children and young people that join our families or our caseload, we need to consider their need for an authentic connection with three dimensional people – a connection which is envisaged as deepening trust and security, rather than just servicing perceived needs.
Martha and Rachel