Relationships matter

Relationships play a central role in children’s social and emotional development and mental health. From the time of birth, children need stable and responsive attachments with caring adults.

The most important influence on early brain development is the real-life “serve and return” interactions with caring adults. As with a ping pong ball being served and returned across the table, children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, gesturing and words with the caregiver responding back to them using the same kinds of vocalisation and gesturing1.

The earliest years of life are a particularly sensitive time for brain development and secure attachment to a primary caregiver23. If an adult’s responses to a child are unreliable, inappropriate or simply absent, the damage to the developing architecture of the brain can have lifelong impacts on learning, behaviour, physical, mental and emotional health1, 2. Conversely, nurturing and enriching early life experiences provide the foundation for healthy brain development, are protective against child maltreatment and increase the probability of positive outcomes in adulthood3.

Therefore, the importance of relational support for those with compromised early beginnings continues beyond the first few years of life. However, children with positive early experiences are not immune to the impact of later adverse experiences and still require ongoing nurturing relationships2.

The key relationships in a child’s life are with their immediate family, including parents and siblings. However, the influence includes others, such as extended family members, with educators and peers also playing an important role as the child gets older. Children are also affected by the quality of relationships between the adults in their life, with exposure to domestic violence and family conflict having a negative impact on wellbeing3, 4.

Other social and family problems can interfere with the quality of a child’s relationships and interpersonal interactions, such as significant stress associated with economic hardship, social isolation, substance abuse, and physical and mental health problems. The nature of these vulnerabilities is that they are often enduring, can fluctuate in severity over time, and can impede parent’s ability to provide nurturing interactions5.

The interdependent nature of the parent-child relationship also means difficult child behaviour, or simply the demands of childrearing on a vulnerable parent, can in turn unsettle the nurturing environment. The cumulative impact over time of these unsupportive and disrupted relationships can lead to difficulties in social adjustment, mental health problems and chronic physical disease1.

1. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain: Working Paper. 2012.
2. Moore, T.G., et al., The First Thousand Days: An Evidence Paper – Summary. 2017, Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.: Parkville, Victoria.
3. Australian Institute of Family Studies, Risk and protective factors for child abuse and neglect (CFCA Resource Sheet). 2017, Australian Institute for Family Studies: Melbourne.
4. Kitzmann, K.M., et al., Child witnesses to domestic violence: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2003. 71(2): p. 339-352.
5. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Depression in Parents, Parenting, and Children: Opportunities to Improve Identification, Treatment, and Prevention. 2009, The National Academies Press: Washington, DC.