Social Support and Early Childhood
In chapter six of Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Southwick and Charney (2012) discuss the importance of social connection and support. After a traumatic experience, social support has been related to a decreased likelihood of developing depression, an increased likelihood of recovering from depression, and decreased activation of the stress response, more specifically of cortisol release along the HPA axis (Southwick & Charney, 2012). A lack of social support, on the other hand, has been related to an increased risk for cardiac arrest and higher levels of both depression and PTSD (Southwick & Charney, 2012). Social support, then, is central to human health and recovery. As the authors suggest, “social ties save lives” (Southwick & Charney, 2012).
Nowhere in life is this quote more relevant than in early childhood, where strong ties between caregivers and children are essential for healthy development. During the first several years of life, children’s brains are in a “sensitive period” where they are primed to learn from and adapt to new information. If young children are immersed in a supportive, interactive environment, neural networks will bloom. If children are neglected or subject to dangerous or deprived environments, neural networks will suffer.
These ideas are supported by Bronson and Merryman (2009), who described the positive developmental outcomes of the enriching “Tools of the Mind” curriculum. In this academic plan, students are encouraged to play, collaborate, and interact with both adults and other children in a complex, enriching environment. After one year of the curriculum, students demonstrated gains in attention, symbolic thought, abstract thinking, and impulse control (Bronson & Merryman, 2009). Activity in the prefrontal cortex was also enhanced (Bronson & Merryman, 2009) due to the interactive, social nature of the curriculum.
In another, more clinical intervention, Neville and colleagues (2013) described using direct, family-based training to enhance selective attention in children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. This intervention, which included both children and caregivers, promoted social connection and increased children’s attentional skills and neural activity. Once again, an intervention that focused on relational skill-building yielded strong results.
Several other studies have identified risk factors that jeopardize a child’s ability to develop strong social ties. Rose-Jacobs and colleagues (2008) examined the interplay between caregivers, food insecurity, and developmental risk in terms of school readiness. Smyke and Breidenstine (2009) examined how the attachment disruptions associated with foster care may lead to several developmental issues. Suchman, DeCoste, and Mayes (2009) developed the Mothers and Toddlers Program to combat the negative effects of substance use on attachment, a mother’s reflexive functioning, and children’s emotional regulation. All of these studies highlight the essential nature of social support in a child’s life and, in light of several risk factors, identify paths toward resilience.
In another chapter from their book, Southwick and Charney (2012) discuss how adults may find additional social support through religion and spirituality. In a religious institution, members have the opportunity to “routinely interaction with positive and resilient role models” who can provide “generosity” and “[broad forms] of social support” (Southwick & Charney, 2012). From a linguistics perspective, social support is literally found within the Latin root of religion, religare, meaning to bind. This type of interpersonal binding and support may be especially important, even life-saving, for at-risk families and adults who have few resources and limited communities to rely on.
In thinking about social ties and resilience, it is vital to understand that it is never too late. Neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is always capable of change in response to its environment, suggests that, even outside of sensitive periods, strong social ties can physically improve the brain’s functioning. Smyke and Breidenstine (2009) describe how, even after neglect or abuse, foster children remain capable of rebuilding attachment relationships with new caregivers. Through a dampening of the stress response, the release of oxytocin, and the new neural pathways forged through bonding, these social ties can create change even years after an attachment disturbance.
Southwick and Charney (2012) also describe how the benefits of social support aren’t solely limited to the receiver; the provider of support can experience similar, if not greater benefits, than the person in need! Basic empathy and altruism, then, is beneficial to everyone involved. Both the giver and receiver of social support will experience a release of oxytocin, an expansion of social resources, and an affirmation that, in this massive and often troubling world, they are not alone.
Bronson, P. & Merryman, A. (2009). Nuture shock: New thinking about children. New York, NY: Twelve, Hachette Book Group.
Neville, H. J., Stevens, C., Pakulak, E., Bell, T. A., Fanning, J., Klein, S., & Isbell, E. (2013). Family-based training program improves brain function, cognition, and behavior in lower socioeconomic status preschoolers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(29), 12138-12143.
Rose-Jacobs, R. Black, M. M., Casey, P. H., Cook, J. T., Cutts, D. B., Chilton, M., Heeren, T., Levenson, S. M., Meyers, A. F., & Frank, D. A. (2008). Household food insecurity: Associations with at-risk infant and toddler development. Pediatrics, 121, 65-72.
Smyke, A. T., & Breidenstine, A. S. (2009). Foster care in early childhood. Zeanah, C. H. (Ed.) Handbook infant mental health (3rd edition) (500-515). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2012). Resilience: The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Suchman, N., DeCoste, C., & Mayes, L. (2009). The mothers and toddlers program: an attachment-based intervention for mothers in substance abuse treatment. Zeanah, C. H. (Ed.) Handbook infant mental health (3rd edition)(485-499). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.