In order to understand relational health, we need to first understand the impact that unhealthy or toxic stress plays on our mind and bodies. We know that stress over time that is continued and prolonged can activate a stress response in our bodies and result in physical and mental harm. See section on Stress Health for a more detailed description.
Stress that is short term can be healthy or tolerable especially when buffered by a caring, supportive individual. Healthy stress includes studying for an exam or driver’s license, preparing for a competition. Tolerable stress includes grief from loss of a loved one, coping with an environmental disaster when buffered by a caring, supportive adult. (1)
Toxic stress responses can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity — such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years. Toxic stress is defined as the “prolonged activation of the stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships.” (1)
Resilience can be defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or in the case of toxic stress to return to being healthy and hopeful. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Early Brain and Child Development, “The good news is that support from nurturing adults can mitigate the harmful effects of toxic stress by helping children feel safer and allowing their bodies to turn off the stress response. The antidote to toxic stress is safe, stable, and nurturing relationships. A comforting adult can help young children turn off this stress response, and older children can be taught healthy strategies for managing stress and their emotions”.
Relational health refers to the ability to form and maintain safe, stable, nurturing relationships (SSNRs), as these are potent antidotes for childhood adversity and toxic stress responses. (2) Relationships that are healthy help to build healthy brains by strengthening circuits of love, empathy, positive thinking, trust, forgiveness and emotional connectiveness to other human beings. Healthy supportive relationships can develop with a parent, grandparent, peer, aunt, uncle, cousin, God parent, mentor, neighbor, teacher, coach, or any person who has an impact on a child’s early development (2).
Additionally, we know that when a person feels isolated it has an impact on the individual and community health as well. The COVID pandemic unveiled the effects of isolation on our mental and physical health. Psychologists have noted there is a “crisis of connection “and point to culture that values self over relationships and individual successes over the general welfare, leading to declining levels of empathy and trust. (3). Research has demonstrated that the degree of social isolation is a powerful predictor of mortality similar to clinical predictors like obesity and hypertension or ACE (adversity) scores (4). Additionally, Health Professionals have noted that relationship health should be included as a new vital sign when assessing health (5). How a child, adolescent, young adult views their relationship to others in their network will impact on how they relate to the world.
In the words of Urie Bronfenbrenner (Developmental Psychologist) “In order to develop normally, a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. Somebody's got to be crazy about that kid. That's number one. First, last, and always.”
1. Center on Developing Child Harvard University. Tackling Toxic Stress. Center on Developing Child. [Online] 2022. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/tackling-toxic-stress/.
2. Pediatrics. Preventing Childhood Toxic Stress. Pediatrics. [Online] August 2021. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/148/2/e2021052582/179805/Preventing-Childhood-Toxic-Stress-Partnering-With?_ga=2.28033724.1023840408.1666297197-1556864665.1647744415?autologincheck=redirected.
3. Ed.D., Niobe Way. Psychology Today. Crisis of Connection. [Online] September 26, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-crisis-connection/201809/the-crisis-connection-roots-consequences-and-solutions.
4. American Journal of Public Health. Social Isolation: A predictor of Mortality. PubMed. [Online] September 12, 2013. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24028260/.
5. MD, Claudia Gold. Early Relationships: The Fourth Vital Sign. Psychology Today. [Online] March 27, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/child-in-mind/201603/early-relationships-the-fourth-vital-sign.