Why relationships are so important for children and young people

20 May 2016

By Paula Lavis, Co-ordinator of the Children and Young People's Mental Health Coalition

As social beings, the capacity to form and maintain relationships is essential to us and how we function within society. It is a key component to being mentally healthy, and having a positive sense of wellbeing.

This is true for children and young people of all ages, from the very early years through to the teenage years.

The first two years of a baby’s life are crucial to their development and future mental health and wellbeing. The brain is developing and it is at its most adaptable during these early years of life. So how we interact with the child can be critical for their healthy development.

Quality of relationship

Parents and carers will have a relationship with their child, but it is the quality of the relationship that is important. A consistent and sensitive relationship is needed, to ensure that babies form a secure attachment or bond with their parents. There is lots written about attachment theory elsewhere, but the gist of it from a psychological perspective is that it is about how babies use their relationships with their main carer to set-up an expectation about themselves and their relationships with others.

A securely attached child will learn that their parents/carer will comfort them when they are distressed, and they will develop a sense that they are worthy of being consoled and loved.  This is essential for healthy development in the child, and will set them up for a good start in life.  Children who are securely attached are better able to manage their own feelings and behaviours and better able to relate to others. This gets babies off to a good start in terms of their social development as well.  

As children grow up, their ability to form and sustain relationships – be that with peers, parents, teachers etc. is crucial. Most children will naturally acquire these skills as they develop. However, there are some children who, for various reasons need some help with this.

There are various social and emotional learning programmes that work in or with schools, and can help with various things including how people get on with each other. There is some evidence to indicate that these programmes are very helpful both in terms of social and emotional learning, but they also can improve attainment as well.

Support our vital work with children, young people and families

The important thing to emphasis here is that whilst these programmes are evidence based, they need to be implemented properly to achieve these positive results. The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition advocates that these programmes promoting social and emotional learning are set within a whole-school approach to promoting mental health and wellbeing.

Not just humans 

Our relationships aren’t confined to humans. This is probably not for everyone, but we can have very positive relationships with our pets. These relationships can have a positive impact on both our physical and mental health.

For instance, they can help reduce stress and bring down blood pressure. Perhaps the strangest, is that dogs have been shown to help children who have difficulties with their reading. There are a few schools in the country that have ‘employed’ specially trained dogs to help children with their reading. It seems that part of the appeal, as long as you like dogs, is that they are non-judgemental, aren’t critical and just cute. This encourages the child to want to be with the dog and read to it.

Difficulties forming relationships

We know that there are some children who may have particular problems forming relationships. This may include children with a learning disability, autism spectrum disorders and so on. Whilst they have particular needs, it doesn’t mean that they can’t form relationships.

But people around them need to give more consideration to how they can help them build relationships. Building a ‘Circle of Friends’ around the person can be very helpful – and can be used with adults as well as children. Often people don’t know how to engage with someone with a learning disability. So Circles of Friends is a useful tool to help create this support network around the person. This is enormously important regarding their mental health as about 36% of children with a learning disability live with a mental health problem. 

The impact of poor relationships

Children’s relationships with their parents, siblings and wider family, and then of course their peers and other adults such as teachers are incredibly important. Whilst they can have a very positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing, when they aren’t good they can have a very negative impact on us. For instance poor relationships both within families and peers are a common trigger for self-harming behaviours.

We know that other issues such as bullying, or relationships difficulties between parents can have an extremely negative impact on the child’s mental health

Relationships within families can become difficult when the child (or adult for that matter) is ill. A stressful thing for any family is when their child is seriously ill, and this is possibly even worse when a child has mental health problems.

Your child being seriously ill is bad enough, but the sad reality for many children and young people with serious mental health problems is that when they need to be admitted to hospital, they often have to travel miles, sometimes across the other side of the country, to find a bed. Being in hospital as a child is awful, but if you are miles away from your family, which many are, it can be horrendous.

While young people will no doubt form relationships with their peers on the wards, and hopefully with practitioners as well; it is a time when they need those strong and secure relationships that families and good friends can provide. If your child is miles away, it is very difficult to provide this support on a day-to-day basis. If you as a parent are stressed, this will impact on the rest of the family and your relationship with them.  

Relationships are important on so many levels, and across the life course. But, if we can make sure that babies, children and young people are able to form and maintain positive relationships in ways that make sense to them, then this will help get them off to a good start in life and support their mental development.

This is important for children and young people themselves, but also their families, friends and the communities they live in.