The power of meaningful relationships

REPSSI is a nonprofit organisation working to lessen the devastating social and emotional (psychosocial) impact of poverty, conflict, HIV and AIDS among children and youth across East and Southern Africa. With several partner organisations in the region and globally, Synergos South Africa has initiated the Social Connectedness Programme to raise awareness about social isolation and promote promising practices for building social connectedness among vulnerable children in southern Africa. REPSSI was commissioned by fellow partner FDC (Foundation for Community Development) in Mozambique to conduct research on how Mozambican communities provide psychosocial support to children at risk of isolation. This research has contributed important insights into local practices of care.

The following is an article from the May 2014 REPSSI newsletter about this work.

REPSSI NewsletterThe Social Connectedness Programme

Fulfilling relationships and secure bonds with others are vital to children’s wellbeing. Stigma, poverty, migration, disability, abuse within the family, maternal depression, and the death of parents can all break these vital connections and lead to social isolation. Social isolation is especially harmful when it lasts a long time. Such chronic isolation impairs quality of life and health, and erodes people’s sense of dignity. For young children, especially, isolation harms their physical, psychosocial and cognitive development.

Being socially connected enables children to participate in activities and relationships that support their psychosocial development and build their resilience. Social connectedness – of the right kind – also protects children.

A Synergos review of worldwide research from different fields points to the damaging effects of isolation and shows why social connectedness is crucial.

Meaningful relationships and brain functioning

From neuroscience research, we learn that thought, emotions and action occur through the activation of neural circuits in the brain. Genetics and experience together determine the wiring of these circuits. The parenting we receive as children, and relationships we have throughout our lives, change synaptic connections and circuits in our brains.

Isolation deprives people of the attention they need for healthy brain functioning. Children who are socially isolated struggle with low self-esteem, often played out in behavioural and learning difficulties. Anger, bitterness and resentment are common emotions for children who feel estranged or rejected.

Ecology of human development

The ecological model of human development shows how important the social environment and relationships are for healthy development. Development takes place through reciprocal interactions between the child and people and things in the child’s immediate environment. In early stages of life, to be effective, face-to-face interaction with parents or caregivers must occur regularly over prolonged periods of time. As children grow older, their development occurs through progressively more complex interactions, with a wider range of people in their close surroundings – family, peers, child-carers, neighbours, people at school and in their faith community.

Through these relationships, a child learns how to live. Caring relations help to develop trust and mutuality. Isolation, neglect and abuse hinder self-actualisation and psychosocial development. In turn, REPSSI’s Noreen Huni points out, “child’s inability to achieve certain developmental tasks may contribute to isolation”.

Social isolation and stigma

Children are particularly vulnerable to isolation when HIV and AIDS goes hand-in-hand with poverty. Stigma, premature burdens of care, and an inability to access services all increase the chances of isolation. The humiliation of being stigmatised may also affect children with disabilities, refugees, and those who have migrated from deep rural areas to cities.

About the self-isolating effect of stigma, Noreen Huni observes, “If you feel stigmatised and you don’t have the capacity to overcome it, you go into your cocoon.”

Building social connectedness

Practitioners who work with children have an important role in supporting them, and their caregivers, to overcome social isolation. Child-care workers, ECD practitioners, teachers, and social workers, among others, can all help to build social connectedness. Focus group discussions and initial findings from Synergos research suggest some guidelines for practitioners:

  • Be alert for children and caregivers who are at risk of social isolation.
  • Help to build trusting and trustworthy relationships among all relevant role players in a child’s immediate environment – children, family members, teachers and community organisations and governmental agencies.
  • Encourage caring adults at home, school, in faith communities and the neighbourhood to support children at risk of isolation.
  • Respect local values and practices of care. Ceremonies and other traditional practices can help people to emerge from painful pasts and relate to others meaningfully.
  • Support children’s participation in decision-making at home, at school and in their communities. Participation enhances self-confidence and builds resilience. Through participation, children see themselves as contributing to their own development and surroundings in ways that value their evolving capacities.
  • Create safe spaces – such as safe parks or kids clubs – for children to connect with one another. With assistance from a trained facilitator, use tools such as REPSSI’s Tree of Life with children in a group context to encourage them to connect with one another in appreciative ways.

For references and more information or if you would like to share your work linked to social connectedness, contact [email protected]