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Family Connection as a preventive behavioural intervention

Prevention through Connection

Given the combination of an already stretched mental health care system, the overwhelming need for mental health treatment post-pandemic, on a background of rising mental ill-health across the lifespan, it would be helpful to step back, reflect on the human condition, and understand how we can support this ever-increasing dilemma facing most nations across our world, including our own, here in the UK. What can be done to support families? Start with connection.

My name is Gauri Seth; I am an emotional intelligence and connection coach, supporting people to connect with their authentic selves so that they can connect with others for healthy, supportive relationships. I have worked and trained as a psychiatry doctor and an academic clinical fellow.

My experience as a mother of three, alongside working in clinical services, has led to wanting to support parents and caregivers with their emotional wellbeing and positively impact future generations. I now work with early connections (families with young children) and help support individuals through a coaching model that can support and empower them to make proactive intentional changes in their everyday lives.

Caregiver-Child Connection

Social connection is a fundamental player in emotional wellbeing, fulfilment and happiness. The link between social connection and wellbeing was established in the landmark ‘Harvard Study of Adult Development’, which highlighted social connection as the strongest contributor to physical and mental health and longevity.

In parenting, it is paramount that parents and caregivers are supported with their emotional wellness to connect with their children. By helping parents’ and caregivers’ wellbeing, we can empower them to be their best selves and model emotional wellness to the next generations.

Furthermore, parents being supported with their emotional wellbeing can be empowered to connect to their children through connection strategies. For example, ‘Love-Bombing’ is a popular and effective strategy involving regular one-to-one time with one child, enabling the child to choose the activity. This requires a no-distraction philosophy, where phones are put away, screens are off, and parents consciously and intentionally choose to be present, and in the moment, with their child.

Another strategy to boost connection with children is to laugh together. Studies show that laughing together can boost trust and closeness in any relationship. This may be as simple as watching a funny television programme together.

I believe that the power of connection is enormous. We feel stronger knowing we are not alone. No man is an island. The caregiver-child connection promotes self-esteem in children - because, if they feel connected, they are given an implicit message that they matter. This is powerful for self-esteem and self-worth, supporting behaviour in the family home.

But it is harder for a parent to connect with their children if they are battling emotional distress, turbulence and stress. The CO-SPACE study of 6000 parents showed increased rates of depression, anxiety and stress following the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the transgenerational impact of parental stress on the ability to connect with children, supporting parents to connect with their authentic selves in order to connect with their children could be a powerful way to support emotional wellness.

Researchers believe that the first seven years of life sets the tone for the emotional environment and patterns of behaviourwe subconsciously are more likely to repeat. If parents and caregivers can model emotional connection during a child’s early years, are they setting the tone for their future ideas around connecting and healthily relating with others?

If so, this hopefully supports their chances of attracting connections and maintaining healthy relationships with their friends, future partners, and future children. This illuminates the transgenerational impact of helping parents with a connection within their families.

Essential emotional skills from the early years to beyond

In ‘On the Origin of the Species’, Charles Darwin stated that it’s not the strongest or most intelligent of the species that survives but the most adaptable to change. Cognitive flexibility and adaptability are essential life skills, enabling us to bend and flex when change or uncertainty presents itself.

Parents and caregivers are in a prime position to support children early on with this essential life skill. We cannot control the external environmental factors that may stress our children when they are adults. We can, however, support them in developing a strong sense of self and adaptability, knowing they are safe in times of change. A sense of safety interacts with external factors and one’s inner world. We can support the internal personal factors when we can’t control the external environmental factors.

Other important non-cognitive skills parents can support children with include gratitude, compassion, distress tolerance, patience, emotional regulation, and mindfulness. Some of these skills have been linked to emotional wellbeing and other positive longitudinal outcomes and help prepare children for life and all its uncertainties through a toolbox of skills. These skills can be seen as ‘life skills’, and parents are in a great position to help their children with these.

It may seem a tall order to expect so much from parents and caregivers, which can support the argument of involving multiple caregivers, relieving pressure and sharing the journey with parents. Rearing young with many emotionally connected caregivers has numerous benefits for the growing mind. Studies understanding children growing up in multigenerational households show benefits in emotional and social learning skills.

While there is no doubt there can be problems with this model, it does invite us to reflect on the importance of a tribe when rearing young. A household structure where there is non-parental caregiving support means less pressure on a mother or father, enabling them to have time to rest and restore their emotional wellbeing, catching up on sleep or tending to their own needs, which we know are so crucial for their ability to tend to their child’s needs.

Should we discuss more openly how parents can accept help from friends and family, and encourage interdependence within communities, so the pressure on the new mother or father is diluted? Literature suggests that involving generations works well when all parties respect autonomy. Can we coach parents grandparents and other family members on how to navigate essential boundaries within a family system, where skills to support autonomy and respect are shared?

Parenting is hard, and given the challenges of the juggle with work, it is so important that techniques are designed to support working parents who may not always be physically present as much as they would like. A non-judgemental curious, and compassionate perspective is essential, so parents feel they can turn to interesting scientific insights to help support their journey of parenthood.

DISCLAIMER: Any information or advice I give is purely based on my own experience. Comments made are as a coach, this is not medical or psychiatry advice. There is no guarantee as there are many variables that will impact outcomes. Everything stated should be taken as an opinion.



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