Strengthening Families: Social Connections
Daniela Caserta is a master’s level family therapist with a bachelor’s in early childhood and human development. With over 25 years of experience, Daniela specializes in working with families with young children. Currently, she is the Early Childhood Services Director for the Family Center of Washington County, and is passionate about prevention work. She is an active trainer for Building Flourishing Communities, Strengthening Families and Youth Thrive in VT. Daniela lives in Montpelier with her two teenaged daughters.
Social Connections (from Strengthening Families Protective Factors framework): “Friends, family members, neighbors and community members provide emotional support, help solve problems, offer parenting advice and give concrete assistance to parents. Networks of support are essential to parents and also offer opportunities for people to “give back,” an important part of self- esteem as well as a benefit for the community. Isolated families may need extra help in reaching out to build positive relationships."
Parenting has been one of the most stressful endeavors I have ever experienced. I often doubted my ability to be a good parent, stressing over questions like:
- Am I feeding my baby well enough?
- Am I playing with my baby enough?
- What if she doesn’t nap?
- Will I ever be able to leave the house with my newborn?
I remember the first night home with my eldest daughter, when I sat in a corner and cried wondering why the hospital let me leave with a tiny little infant that was totally dependent on me. I was in the depths of despair when my sister came over, told me to take a shower while she held my baby, and made dinner for me. It was in that moment that I realized that I couldn’t parent alone—that I shouldn’t parent alone.
Our social connections provide a buffer to the inherent stress related to parenting. Without the support of my sister, my mother and my friends, I would have felt even more overwhelmed by the responsibility that parenting requires. Having strong supports allows for parents to take a night off to reenergize or call someone when their reserves run dry or they doubt their capacity. This is why the evidence of social connections is considered a Strengthening Families protective factor in a parent’s life. This protective factor is dynamic and ongoing, meaning it will require nurturing and guidance as life changes.
If the sheer exhaustion from lack of sleep doesn’t weigh down a parent, the emotional stress of parenting certainly will. We’ve got a lot on our mind, at the forefront of which is our babies’ developing brain.
We know that positive, responsive and loving interactions, like playing peek-a-boo, being comforted when distressed or cuddling on a couch with adults, shape a baby’s brain, setting a safe and nurturing template for their world view, and offering the brain adequate stimulation to grow strong. We also know that negative social interactions, like yelling loudly, shaking a baby out of frustration, or ignoring a crying baby, flood a baby’s brain with stress hormones and reduce a sense of safety or predictability, compromising the baby’s brain growth and their subsequent ability to cope.
We are literally influencing the architecture of their developing brains. So, it’s no wonder we tend to pour our resources into the wellbeing of our children while overlooking the importance of taking care of ourselves. Unfortunately, this often leaves us stressed out, isolated and swimming in chaos—three factors that make it difficult to provide children with the positive and loving interactions they need to ensure their healthy development. This is why it’s important for parents to be supported by family, friends or community resources to ensure they are in the best position to provide the quality interactions that children need.
When parents have healthy social connections, and feel a sense of belonging to a group of other people all participating in a common experience, they are more likely to
- Engage in events and interactions that are beneficial for their mental health
- Be aware of community events that are pleasing to do with their children
- Have opportunities for social interactions with others and their children
- Lean on a friend when they’re frustrated by life
- Have positive interactions with their children
All of these factors create healthy family outcomes.
The challenge for parents is learning how to receive help, and to reach out for support in order to manage stress effectively and teach children to manage their stress appropriately.
Child care providers have a unique opportunity to support parents. Their frequent contact with children and families makes them well-positioned to assist families in developing social connections by offering opportunities for families to interact with one another through events such as hosting an art show, organizing pot luck dinners or facilitating parent education workshops. Supporting parents can even be as simple as encouraging small talk at drop off (by having coffee available and by providing adult sized chairs for parents) or posting community events for families on a program bulletin board.
As child care providers know, serving a child well means serving the family. Ensuring that families have healthy social connections is best practice and buffers families from stress, which without help, could otherwise become toxic and overwhelming. Helping parents build social connections and feel part of a network of support helps them model healthy relationships for their children, so that they create healthy relationships for themselves.
In other words, “it takes a village” is not only catchy, it’s a reality.
This is part 2 in a series of articles written by early-childhood experts on the protective factors framework of the Strengthening Families approach. Click here to read part 1.
by Daniela Caserta, early childhood services director for Family Center of Washington County, Montpelier, VT