In the wake of the lingering social isolation generated by the covid pandemic and by lockdowns, it makes sense that the theme of this year’s Mental Health Week (15th-22nd May) is ‘Let’s Connect’. Through neuroscience we know that our brains are social organs – growing and thriving through the connections we make with other brains; so if we want healthy brains we look to our relationships – and how we connect – rather than think of going to the gym and giving up chocolate, as we sometimes do if we catch sight of ourselves in a full-length mirror!
How skilled we are at making those connections depends largely on how a parental figure connected with us in our infancy; the quality of our parent’s focus on us when we were being fed, or on the changing mat, whether concentrated or playful, – it is these interactions that build a relational blueprint in our brains and play a significant part in our future mental and emotional health and well-being.
That said, it is generally accepted that our capacity to connect interpersonally is diminishing, at the same time as opportunities to connect with the world and what’s going on in it have increased massively (we have the equivalent of 174 newspapers’ worth of information being directed at us through various media on a daily basis, compared with a single newspaper in the 1950s – and this was research done on 2007 – so out-of-date, I suspect, by quite a few newspapers!). It’s been suggested (Alan Sroufe was the first – but others have followed) that the amount of chaos and stress in the home environment is a key factor in hampering a child’s developing capacity to make good connections; stressed parents don’t focus well on soothing their fractious infant – so the child doesn’t learn to calm themselves and doesn’t grow up having that inbuilt sense of comfortable relaxation generated by engaging with another person.
And then we look at the wider environment. As a child, when not in school, I went out to play with the other children along our road. I knew I had to be back by the next mealtime – or whenever. But there was no adult with us (you can tell – I’m old!) – we looked out for each other and were responsible for our younger sibs. And we walked by ourselves to school and to the corner shop on a Saturday morning to spend our pocket money. But now childhood happens behind the family home’s closed doors, with children escorted to playdates and supervised by parents. Play is increasingly equated with being on screens, with children having TVs and digital gizmos in their bedrooms – and often collecting food at mealtimes to return to their screen game-playing upstairs.
The connections made in digital games are virtual and the friendships formed through social media have typically not been tested in the playground – and may owe a lot to fantasy and filters. In the games we played in the park as children, we also used imagination – how else could our dens become castles, and how could we find ways of damming the stream when sticks and stones were in short supply? But in the course of playing we learnt how to problem solve, how to make the rules and police them, how to operate the give-and-take of a relationship so we got what we wanted but kept our friend onside. We learnt how to tolerate being left or let down – it happened to everyone at some point – and the knack was to come up with a suggestion, or do something, that was so amazing that everyone regrouped – and the game began again. I can still remember the deep enjoyment of those times. This was how we learnt the art of connecting – and learnt ourselves in the process.
Children who are encouraged to explore their wider environment – connecting with new experiences as well as with new people – are most likely to develop good mental health. Many children, unfortunately, have lives that are a bit like processed food – they can look amazing but all the nutrients have been drained out of them and they are pretty bland. Let’s try to put some of the good stuff back – through the quality of our connecting and exploring with the children in our lives.
Martha and Rachel