One of the greatest parts of our work is being able to learn about and connect, different worlds. One of those instances was the Collaborative Trust’s Research Hui, who annually convene social workers, academics, youth workers, researchers and people interested in youth wellbeing to exchange ideas, research, learnings and make connections.
One of the main learnings was the importance of a systemic approach to youth wellbeing as an issue.
If empathy, resilience and emotional competence are built in the first three years of a person’s life, then how do we go about improving the conditions in which this happens? Does that mean we actually need to speak to the parent’s generation, in making sure that they look after the young ones to their best ability and knowledge? Does that then mean that we also need to look after the wellbeing of those people in their formative teenage years?
On a systemic level, does that mean it doesn’t make a difference at which level or age we approach wellbeing – if parenting improves the lives of zero-to-threes, and zero-to-threes leads to more resilient teenagers later on, then picking a starting point might not be the most important. What truly is important is that we work towards improving wellbeing, no matter what the strategic direction of how we approach it. To me, it shows that wellbeing is circular in our society, and whatever angle we choose to approach the problem from, it will increase wellbeing on many different levels.
Psychologist Maria Ulloa points out the importance of starting with the early years – and even that adolescence nowadays can take up to 25 years. She talks about the importance of attachment as a way of protecting ourselves from harm, as it can help build up a buffer against trauma. She looks at the roots of resilience coming from being held in the mind and heart of an empathetic attuned other. (Here’s a link to her doctoral dissertation which talks about emotionally intelligent teachers supporting the emotional competence of preschoolers)
Dr Nikki Turner, too, stresses the importance of getting the early years right, and that we should be ‘taking a life-course approach to prevention.’ Issues like poor housing, stressed environment, poor hygiene, weaker immune response, poor nutrition, reduced access to health care services, late presentation to clinicians are only some of the things that can affect the health in the early stages of a child’s life. Significant stress in early life can affect how the brain develops, and can leave lasting signature on a person’s life.
In her eyes, resilience is ‘nature dancing with nurture over time – it begins antenatally, continues through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and through generations.’ By engraining things on the brain early, they can become fixed genetically, and carry on across generations – making it even more important to look at all socio-economic influences on wellbeing, and taking a comprehensive and systemic approach to the issue.
Some initiatives increasingly focus on the early days, for example Bay Of Plenty’s First 1000 Days – a local initiative with national support that works towards improving the quality of children in the first three years.
One of the lessons that I took away from the couple of days spent in Christchurch is the increasing momentum around focusing on strengths, rather than deficit when it comes to what we’re measuring or looking at for young people. So what is it that’s going well, rather than exclusively looking at the things that are going badly? We’re easily misled by headlines, research and report that point towards the negative, but actually there are often positive lessons amidst all that which we’re often less exposed to.
This is also reflected on a personal wellbeing level: Dr Terryann Clark, in her keynote presentation describes that ‘we’re often our own worst enemy when it comes to our own wellbeing’ where we choose to focus on the negatives, rather than build on the positives. Referencing the CERA Youth Wellbeing Survey (via MYD) she also reflected on the importance of family life, having engaged parents & people who care about a lot about you at school as an important factor that contributes to immediate and future wellbeing.
Dr Clark pointed out that, in relating to young people’s wellbeing, things are actually looking ok, and even that things are improving, however that it’s people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are struggling to access services, which points to a larger overall problem that’s societal, and can’t be isolated as a wellbeing-only issue.
The Collaborative’s own Hannah Dunlop, who works for the Red Cross on the Address the Stress campaign, talked about the importance of youth-led wellbeing projects. Pointing out the crucial difference between focus groups and co-design, she referenced the importance of participatory research, iterating and learning together. Whilst focus groups mean that young people get to add their voice to a conversation, it’s often not the most fruitful way of involving young people. Co-designing however means that the project becomes youth-lead, eg young people on a project being responsible for social media, creating content and public promotion (participatory) as opposed to say whether or not they like a certain image as part of a campaign (focus group). Essentially, it was about creating a culture of possibility to empower young people to enhance their lives. How can we reshape the story that we’re telling, of ‘fixing’ young people’s problems lives to stories of real-world encouraging and empowering. At the same time, Hannah points out, it’s crucial that we find the right balance balance between aspirational and positive conversations as well as meeting needs when things aren’t ok, and creating safe spaces for that.
Check out the Collaborative, and the mahi that they do, here.