A New Type of Health: What is Relational Health?

A New Type of Health: What is Relational Health? by Joanna Piekarski, BA, M.Ed


Psyched About Kids recently attended the 2017 Zero to Three Conference in San Diego and there was a trend in the sessions: the importance of relational health.


We’re all familiar with physical health. Most people see a physician when they have physical symptoms that affect their daily functioning.


Mental health is less understood by the general population, although mental heath awareness campaigns are on the rise. Many of us are at least familiar with the terms “anxiety” and “depression” and are starting to understand that there is a relationship between our mental health and physical health.


Did you know that there’s a new category of health that both physicians and mental health clinicians are researching? It’s called relational health. Relational health refers to the person-to-person interactions we have that foster growth, have a mutual sense of empathy (the ability to understand how another person is thinking and feeling), and are also empowering.


Relational health is so important because it literally affects brain development and in turn affects both your mental and physical health!


Did you know that the most important one of these relationships is the caregiver-child relationship, especially during the age of 0-3. In fact, research from the Harvard Centre of the Developing Child suggests that if you have one supportive, nurturing, healthy relationship with a caregiver, you will be more successful in school, your career and in your adult relationships.


So what are some of the factors that can affect relational health between a caregiver and baby?


Personal History

Maybe your own caregiver or caregivers struggled with mental health challenges, substance abuse, or simply didn’t know the importance of face-to-face stimulation. Often there is a trans-generational effect passed down within your own parenting.


Lack of Knowledge

“Wow. I thought it was adolescence where the majority of the brain developed. I had no idea that the most sensitive period of development is between the ages of 0-3. I just made sure I kept him alive and stopped him from crying. I’m not sure I gave a lot of face-to-face interaction and stimulation.” This is a very common response and the best answer to this one is education around brain development.


Post Partum Depression

How is a parent going to be attuned to an infant if they are in a depressed state? It’s so important to pay attention to depressive symptoms post partum because it can affect both your own and your newborn’s relational health.


Toxic Stress

If you or your loved ones are in crisis, this can definitely affect the way you respond to your infant.

  • Are you in a relationship affected by domestic violence?
  • Are you struggling financially?
  • Are you experiencing significant grief or loss?
  • Is substance abuse a factor?

Make sure you seek appropriate resources to reduce this level of crisis and toxic stress in your life.


Cell phones

That’s right! Cell phones can affect relational health. I have seen mothers playing Candy Crush while they are breastfeeding. I’ve seen infant cues being missed while caregivers scroll through their social media. My advice is to use cell phones while your baby is sleeping and minimize cell phone use unless you need to communicate important information to someone.


If you’re noticing that one or more of these factors are affecting your interactions with your baby, please see a mental health professional.


Take care of your own needs. Make sure to have face-to-face interaction with your infant every day. Be consistent. Help them explore their environment. Be your baby’s safe haven.

Article by Joanna Piekarski


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