Social relationships may affect children's physical health, study says


As the parent of a preschooler, I often see my daughter facing social situations she doesn't know how to handle. Whether it's knowing who to play with at school when her best friend is absent, figuring out what to say when a classmate mocks her letter-tracing or confronting the kid on the playground who pushed her, my parenting approach has been to listen, offer suggestions - but ultimately let her handle her own interactions.

I figure that's a whole lot more acknowledgment than what was offered by my parents, who were great, but hardworking immigrants who didn't trouble themselves with preschool drama. It also seems like the right way to balance my Mama Bear instinct to protect with the importance of allowing my child to develop important social skills for herself.

But recent research on the stress caused by social relationships in children is causing me to re-evaluate.

According to a study recently published in Social Neuroscience, researchers at the University of Missouri have found that children and adolescents have physical reactions to the social networks they perceive. And the quality and size of the social relationships nurtured in childhood may have an impact on the physical and mental health of children, the study says.

"Those children that are in a difficult social environment and are not figuring out ways to navigate those problems, that can be tough on them and it certainly can have health consequences," said Mark Flinn, director of the department of anthropology at the University of Missouri and one of the study's authors.

For the study, Flinn and his team interviewed 40 children, ages 5 to 12 and living on a small island in the Caribbean, about their social networks. The children represented 80 percent of the children on the island and were asked to talk about their understanding of their friendships, as well as their friends' networks, while researchers measured the amount of cortisol and salivary alpha-amylase - a hormone and enzyme in the body secreted in response to outside pressure or tension.

Researchers found that children who had bigger groups of friends and more awareness of whom other children considered friends showed lower stress levels at the time of the interview. Those who had smaller groups of friends and less awareness about peers' friendships measured higher amounts of stress, either because their relationships caused them stress, or the interview itself was a stressor, Flinn said.

Stress leads to other problems, Flinn added. After studying the Caribbean village for almost three decades, he said his team has found evidence that people who go through a heightened stressful event are more than 2 times more likely to get a cold in the week following that incident. They're also susceptible to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, he said.

"You're taking resources away from your immune system, and other means that your body has, to focus on these stressful social situations," he said.

Thankfully, just as I was starting to feel like a completely insensitive mom for not taking my daughter's preschool woes more seriously, Flinn added that stress isn't always a bad thing. Just as your body increases stress hormones to give you the surge of energy needed to run away from a tiger, stress can be what is needed to get through life's complications.

"Physiological stress response is an evolved system, and it's designed to help us cope with these everyday ups and downs, focusing our attention on things that are important," Flinn said.

So how much should a parent intervene to ensure her child's social well-being?

Leandra Parris, assistant professor of school psychology at Illinois State University, who is both a researcher and a school psychologist, said the answer varies depending on a child's temperament, but she offered a few universal guidelines to help.

Young children need concrete examples of what to do. In her work in bullying prevention, Parris spends a lot of time with preschool-aged children practicing phrases that help children express how they feel from unpleasant social interactions. Parents might try role-playing with a child to walk him or her through how to respond in uncomfortable social settings, she said.

By the time a child gets to fourth or fifth grade, stressful friendships can be managed by helping young people understand different levels of friendship. At this stage, parents and teachers can explain that quality is more important than quantity in social networks, and that if a couple of people are close friends that can be trusted, the rest - who may be causing stress - can remain on the periphery, Parris said.

And by high school, children need the most support in understanding cyberbullying and social media friendships. Parents must work hard to be sure their children understand online identities, friendships and safety, Parris said.

She added that in each of these stages, one of the most important things a parent or teacher can do is make sure to find an approach that a child is comfortable with, not just one that sounds good or that someone with another temperament would execute.

"We tell them, here's what you should do," Parris said. "We forget to ask them, how comfortable do you feel doing that?"

The advice couldn't have come at a better time for me and my 4-year-old, who stayed up late on a recent night brainstorming ways she could tell her classmate to stop saying it looks like scribbles when she writes her name. I still expect my daughter to handle the interaction herself.

But at least now I know she's comfortable doing it, and that she has concrete examples of what to say.

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