Relationships are complicated, right? I’m not talking about your profile on Match.com, swiping on Tinder or your relationship status on Facebook. I’m referring to the face-to-face, eye-to-eye, in-person connection to another human being.
Researchers report that having friendships and positive relationships has the highest correlation with happiness, and satisfying social relationships is one of the key differentiators between very happy people and very unhappy people.
My seventh grade English teacher had a reputation for being stern. I’d always done well without much effort. Not in Mrs. Hoyt’s class. The first paper she handed back had a bold, red B minus across the top. Wait, what? It took me days to approach this white-haired, intimidating women. What she told me changed my life: “I see your ability, but you are capable of so much more. Don’t waste your gift. I believe in you.”
Her voice is still in my head and is just one example of the power of saying “I see you.” Intimacy or “in to me see,” is a powerful connector. But so many in our community report increased isolation and disconnection. Being a kid today can be tough. In fact, nearly 1 in 3 local students report not having a positive adult role model.
The CDC led compelling research around ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). They identified 10 potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect; witnessing violence in the home; and having a family member attempt or die by suicide. Also included are growing up in a household with substance misuse, mental health problems, and instability due to parental separation or incarceration of a parent, sibling, or other member of the household.
They uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults, along with social and emotional problems. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, substance use and suicide.
The study’s researchers came up with an ACE score to explain a person’s risk for chronic disease. Think of it as a cholesterol score for toxic childhood stress. You get one point for each type of trauma. The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk of health and social problems.
One thing that has been shown to change this negative trajectory is positive, meaningful relationships.
“There is no more important predictor of success than hope,” Maholmes said, describing it as “the ability to envision a more positive future, even when all evidence points to the contrary. Hope begets resilience because it is the magical force that enables children to adapt and heal emotionally from their adverse childhood experiences. While all children differ in their ability to rebound from adversity, and some may be more effectively ‘wired for hope’ than others, positive relationships with adults appear to be the most important source of hope for children at risk for poor educational outcomes.” (Haney, The Atlantic, 2015)
Children today face unprecedented challenges. They struggle to overcome adversity yet have access to more information than any generation before them. They are more connected with the world, yet are increasingly disconnected from humanity.
The issue is complex, but the solutions can be simple. Build connection. See kids beyond their behavior or circumstance. Volunteer to support a struggling learner, help a youth organization, become a mentor or just invite kids into your life.
Friendship isn’t always about who you’ve known the longest. It’s about who walked into your life and said “I’m here for you and proved it.”
During my son’s sophomore year, he came home from Band camp talking a new friend. They met playing Euchre and my son referred to him as a sarcastic little punk that knew how to stack the deck. But the spark of friendship began.
Over time, I realized this young man was coming to the house, even when the kids weren’t there. He began to share things about his life and trust me with his struggles. Thus began our life-changing friendship.
In his senior year, he became the first person in his family to graduate from high school and we were all there, cheering him on. I may have cried a little. Soon after graduation, his father was diagnosed with end-stage cancer and went into hospice care. We supported him during the journey and mourned with him when his dad passed away.
While he didn’t really think college was an option, we kept planting the seeds of possibility. It wasn’t always easy, but today he is a college graduate and works full-time in IT. I couldn’t be more proud.
It has been a profound honor to walk alongside this young man. He has taught me many things—that family extends beyond bloodlines; relationships matter and that love, encouragement and patience change everything.
Be careful, the life that you change may be your own.
Holly Miller is the executive director for United Way of Midland County. She authored this column as part of the Daily News’ Community Connections initiative.