Social relationships are key to well-being

In this Science to Practice video, clinical psychologist, Dr Roslyn Law, uses the Childhood Trauma and the Brain animation to explain how talking about brain development can help young people and families to develop new ways of thinking about their difficulties.

I think it’s just really important to think about well-being and mental health as a team effort. The basic idea that we see so clearly in the film is that our well-being is socially created – we learn about ourselves and other people through our experiences with the people around us. How we are thought about and felt about, how other people behave towards us shapes the way we go on to think and feel about other people.  And just as our sense of ourselves and other people is socially created it can be socially destroyed or at least damaged.  This vulnerability isn’t only in the early years of development but continues across our lives with social thinning, losing people, reducing our opportunities for different kinds of experiences and new learning.  But just as we might see the problem arising in a social context so we can find the solution in that social context. The damage that is socially created can also be socially repaired.

Latent Vulnerability – how understanding new things helps (1:34)

Films like this are so helpful because they help to make things that are all too often invisible and confusing, visible and understandable. Latent Vulnerability has the potential to be disruptive because it lies below the surface and out of sight. Being aware of the possibility can significantly reduce its disruptive potential. I talk about how our brains develop a lot with the young people and families I work with and can see the positive impact of having a new way to think about difficulties or relationships, problems that previously were a complete mystery. It’s almost like having these idea in mind creates a foothold that allow us to peek over the top of a high wall to see what is going on on the other side – in someone else’s mind and experience, and that mutual recognition can often be enough to carry relationships through problems that can feel very stuck when all you can see is the brick wall, blocking your view of the other person.

Having someone who can hold you in mind when you can’t do it for yourself is one of the most valuable assets any of us can have. We all wobble at times, have misunderstandings and get things wrong. I do it all the time. It is entirely human and probably essential – we get a chance to learn from our mistakes and learn that our relationships survive mistakes, sometimes they are even made stronger when we find a way back from them together. What’s important is that we feel safe to try and find our way back when things go wrong and the people around us can help to create an environment in which mistakes are ok and we can rely on having support to turn it around. The idea of social thinning described in the film is very important because it highlights that the problem doesn’t exclusively lie in a damaged child. A breakdown in the give and take and mutual understanding in a relationship can begin on either side and crucially the solution can be found in both sides of a relationship. It gives us a part to play for those children who are experiencing the effects of these early interruptions to development.

The Power of Pausing (4:37)

I am a great fan of the importance of pausing – a moment when we take time to try and work out what is going on. It can make all the difference in transforming reactions that are usually quite impulsive and not thought through very well into responses that have an idea of our own and other people’s intentions behind them. The swimming coach demonstrated that so well – just taking a moment to try to make sense of something that didn’t quite add up opened up the possibility of a whole new sequence of events that affected at least three different relationships. Crucially someone else pausing helped the boy in the film to find his way back – he didn’t have to do it on his own. Having a team around us who will help to create opportunities and map the way back from near misses can be transformational in reshaping a child’s opportunities in life.

Adolescence as a Period of Opportunity and Challenge (5:42)

I work mainly with children and young people who are on the brink or in the middle of their adolescence. Developmentally this is a period of huge opportunity and challenges. Social relationships, especially with peers, take on much more significance – this is a hardwired shift in perspective from family to peers. In a more nuanced way than for infants, young people are discovering themselves in others and finding their tribe – the people they will go through life with. The implications of early experience are put even more robustly to the test during this period when social scripts are being played out and the stakes seem higher. But it is important to remember that the rapid brain development that happens over this decade, especially in the social brain – the network of brain regions that help us to make sense of ourselves and others – also means that the potential for learning is huge. We see a sharp upturn in the rates of mental health problems during adolescence and some of this can be understood in terms of latent vulnerabilities coming to the surface when young people navigating their way through new and more complex relationships is one of the most important things they have to do. If young people and the people around them have a map that highlights some of the bumps in the road and signposts the whole team to the alternatives routes that are now available it can have a significant positive impact in limiting the impact of the latent vulnerabilities that we all carry within us and promoting good mental health and resilience.



“We need a team effort to help children manage the impact of early traumatic experiences because, as we have learned from the science, we learn about ourselves and others through our experiences with the people around us.”

~ Dr Roslyn Law, Clinical Psychologist at the Anna Freud Centre

Learn more

You can find the Childhood Trauma and the Brain animation and additional resources to support your learning here. This includes a downloadable guidebook, explainer videos, and articles on the research. The animation is also available in Welsh.

This video was generously funded by the Economic Social Research Council.

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