- What are social environments?
- The importance of positive social environments and relationships for parents
- How do social environments and social relationships influence a child’s development?
For decades, the medical community has understood the important influence an individual’s environment has on their health. This has led to many health promotion interventions which focus on improving health by improving the environment of a community. It has also led to increasing calls for future health promotion efforts to move beyond attempting to change individual behaviours and instead focus on creating healthy environments, which are conducive to health.
An individual’s social environment, including the social relationships an individual makes within it, can also have a profound impact on the quality of parenting, which in turn affects a child’s health development and future achievements. Inclusive social environments which provide support to parents have been shown to enhance parents’ capacity to care for their children and in doing so promote better child health and development. They have also been shown to have a positive effect on the family system, and families who are well connected to networks of supportive individuals are better able to cope with factors which may negatively influence their health.
The social environment refers to an individual’s physical surroundings, community resources and social relationships.
The physical surrounding of a social environment include housing, facilities for education, health care, employment and open space for recreation. The nature of physical surroundings (including their quality, e.g. the extent to which open spaces are clean and buildings maintained) can influence the quality of parenting and in turn affect the health and wellbeing of children within that environment.
The availability of community resources refers to community structures (e.g. political governance) and organisations, knowledge and support within the community. The extent to which resources are available in the community influences the health of individuals living within it. Living in a socio-economically deprived, underdeveloped community, has a negative impact on child development.
Social relationships are the interactions between various individuals or groups. In every society, individuals develop relationships with other individuals to enable them to achieve their goals. These relationships may be entered into consciously or unconsciously (e.g. a friendly chat whilst waiting in a queue or a meeting with a child’s teacher). The obligations, expectations, trust and norms of any relationship influence the extent to which these relationships enable an individual to develop “social capital”. Social capital is a strong, supportive network of individuals who provides access to emotional and physical resources which an individual needs to fulfil their goals. The social relationships are collectively referred to as the social network. Good social networks are associated with greater levels of social cohesion, informal care and enforcing healthy behaviours such as not smoking and safe sexual practices.
A child’s social environment is largely dictated by where their parents live and send them to school. In turn, the social environment largely determines who children form social relationships with and the quality of those social relationships, as many of the relationships children form are within their family or neighbourhood. As such, parents’ decisions (or, on the contrary, lack of decision making power) about where to live, work and school can markedly affect the health and wellbeing of their children.
An individual’s physical surroundings markedly influence their health. Environments characterised by poor physical surroundings (e.g. lack of open space, lack of facilities and litter) are associated with poor health outcomes. For example, social environments characterised by quality, affordable housing are associated with reduced poverty and increased residential stability, both of which affect a child’s health and the social relationships which they form. Children who change neighbourhoods frequently because their parents are forced to move to find affordable housing may find it difficult to develop supportive social relationships and are more likely to be absent from or under-perform at school. Australian children who lived in cleaner neighbourhoods were assessed as having better social behaviours than those living in less clean environments.
The availability of good quality educational facilities within an environment is also important. For example, attending early childhood education is associated with improved childhood development and individuals living in socio-economically marginalised communities are less likely to have access to early childhood education facilities, and are thus less likely to attend and experience the benefits of early childhood education. Children who do not attend early childhood education have also been shown to be at greater risk of maltreatment during childhood.
The availability of job opportunities within a neighbourhood or community may also affect a child’s development, by influencing their parents’ work. Working locally means less travel time (and presumably, more time for family commitments) and associated stress.Work-related stress and time constraints have been shown to have negative effects on individuals and spill over into the family and affect relationships within it, including the quality of parent-child relationships. Working locally can improve parenting, relationships between parents and children and ultimately child health and development. There is also evidence that the availability of housing and employment within a neighbourhood, affect levels of child maltreatment and children are less likely to be maltreated in communities where housing and employment are more readily available.
Parents play a key role in educating their children. However, they also rely on resources within their community including teachers, doctors and other adults (e.g. community members, family, friends) to fulfil their parenting role. The degree of cohesion amongst members of the community (measured for example by the presence or absence of community organisations or community activism) influence the nature of these relationships. Communities characterised by high levels of cohesion, such as those with active community groups, provide good opportunities for individuals to become involved in and develop the resources in their community.
For example, an Australian study of children living in 257 neighbourhoods reported that a sense of belonging to the neighbourhood (having positive social relationships within the neighbourhood) was associated with more pro-social behaviour amongst children. An American study reported that children growing up in neighbourhoods characterised by impoverishment were more likely to experience maltreatment (negative social relationships) than those living in neighbourhoods without these characteristics.
The rules and norms which govern a community can also exert an influence. For example, many Australian communities now have laws which prevent adults smoking in the vicinity of children’s recreational facilities, and these laws increase the capacity of communities to protect their children’s heath.
Factors relating to an individual’s personal circumstances also influence the extent to which they are able to access resources within the community. For example, the length of time an individual has lived in a community influences the extent to which they engage with resources in the community, and residential stability increases an individual’s sense of belonging to a community and access to resources. However, in Australia families are increasingly mobile, and this mobility may undermine the development of support networks within a community. A parent’s work situation may also influence their access to community resources. For example, parents who are working fulltime or working long distances away from their home community may find it difficult to get involved in community organisations.
The role of extended family members in providing support for parents is declining in Australia. This means that access to non-family resources which can provide such support is of increasing importance to families.
The social environment also influences the nature and quality of the social relationships in which parents and children engage, as the social environment largely determines who, how often and on what terms parents and children will interact socially.Developing and maintaining positive social relationships (e.g. characterised by trust, mutual satisfaction, respect, love and happiness) is fundamental to a good quality of life and psychological health. Individuals who have good relationships develop a sense of belonging and receive support from other members of their social network which helps them to function normally from day to day and also to cope with stress and difficult times. Social relationships also provide opportunities for generating new ideas, discussing issues and concerns, sharing good news and obtaining social, economic and emotional support. However, some social relationships involve negative emotions and behaviours (e.g. lack of trust, envy, jealousy, breaking promises and violence) which may undermine an individual’s wellbeing and life quality.
Living in a good social environment increases the likelihood that a child will develop positive social relationships. Social behaviour and the ability to develop positive relationships with others were traditionally conceived as skills which would develop naturally. However, there is an increasing recognition that social behaviours are learned and that children must be taught pro-social behaviour. Children learn from their social environment, for example by mimicking (or challenging) the social behaviour of their peers, and thus what they see in their day to day environment is likely to influence their social behaviour. Social skills can also be actively taught, for example when a parent or teacher reinforces and encourages good behaviours, the probability of these behaviours occurring is enhanced. Teachers and parents may also actively encourage children to apply social skills learnt in one social setting (e.g. the classroom) to other settings (e.g. home or the playground).
Both the parent’s and child’s social relationships are increasingly recognised as a important factors influencing the quality of parenting, which in turn is an important contributor to the child’s overall development. The children of parents who have strong and supportive social relationships are more likely to develop positive social relationships themselves and having positive and supportive social relationships and networks improves a child’s development. In terms of parenting, social relationships of key importance include those between a child and their parents, but also a child and other adults (e.g. teachers, other children’s parents) and other children (including their siblings). Parental involvement with the parents of other children creates trust and obligations, as well as community norms, which the parents set collectively for their children. This means that parents can collectively take responsibility for children’s behaviour, for example by providing discipline if a child misbehaves.
Relationships between parents and children also affect a child’s ability to develop social relationships in the community. One study reported that the children of parents who had difficulty disciplining their children and being affectionate towards them due to financial stress, received lower teacher ratings in terms of their social behaviour compared to children whose parents did not experience these difficulties.
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There is a considerable body of evidence demonstrating that an individual’s social environment influences their health status, although the mechanisms by which it does so are not yet fully understood. A number of possible mechanisms have been put forward. For example, it has been hypothesised that children may imitate what they see in their environment, thus those who grow up in contexts characterised by high-quality education and child-care, access to a range of essential services and recreational facilities and social cohesion, experience better developmental outcomes than those who grow up in contexts characterised by a lack of resources and social antagonism.
A child’s social environment influences their cognitive development and educational attainment. Children who engage in good social relationships perform better academically than those who do not. Children living in social environments characterised by residential stability are less likely to be absent from school and perform better academically than those who do not. Those who live in poor quality neighbourhoods (e.g. low socio-economic status) are more likely to drop out of school before completion than those who do not.
Attending early childhood education, at which a child can develop social relationships with other children and teachers and in doing so, develop pro-social behaviour, has a particularly profound effect on future academic achievement. Children who attend preschool perform better academically and are less likely to repeat a grade. There is evidence that cognitive development is influenced by the social environment during early childhood even if a child subsequently moves to a different neighbourhood. For example, a child who lives in a disadvantaged neighbourhood during early childhood will experience reduced cognitive development and academic performance even if they move to a more affluent neighbourhood later in life. An intergenerational effect is also present, and children whose parents grew up in disadvantaged neighbourhoods also experience impaired cognitive development and educational attainment compared to those who did not, even if they grow up in a more affluent neighbourhood.
Growing up in a positive social environment is associated with less risk taking behaviour. Children who grow up in positive environments are less likely to have accidents requiring treatment than those who do not. There is also a reduced risk of developing a substance use disorder amongst children who have positive social relationships compared to those who do not.
The sense of belonging which individuals experiences when they have good social relationships has a positive influence on their mental health. Children who have good social relationships have greater self esteem than those who do not and are less likely to experience mental health problems including depression and anxiety. There is also evidence that pro-social behaviour during childhood leads to better psychological health in adulthood.
The social environment may also influence a child’s health by influencing the behaviour of their parents. For example, an Australian study reported that parents living in communities where services were more accessible, were less likely to use hostile parenting techniques (which are expected to have negative psychological effects on their children) than those living in communities where resources were not available.
Individuals living in social environments characterised by positive social relationships are more motivated than those who do not. For example, peer support has been found to be an important predictor of a child’s motivation to pursue social goals, while teacher support increases a child’s motivation for both social and academic goal pursuits. Parent support also influences children in terms of their level of interest in school and their pursuit of goals.
A positive social environment also promotes improved physical health, including
- A reduced risk of eating disorders – children who engage in good social relationships are less likely to develop eating disorders than those who do not;
- Increased likelihood of being immunised – children living in positive social environments are more likely to be immunised than those who are not;
- Reduced risk of teenage pregnancy – young women living in poor quality neighbourhoods are more likely to experience teenage pregnancy than those who do not;
- Sporting ability: children with positive social relationships perform better at sports than those who do not.
There are many ways in which parents can get involved in their communities, and in doing so improve their social relationships, their parenting skills and their children’s health and development.
Being physically, socially and mentally active can improve an individual’s social environment and relationships and cause them to feel more involved in their community. For example, taking a walk or a bike ride provides opportunities for meeting or engaging other community members.
Belonging to a group, whether it is a sporting team, book club or other organisation, is a good way to meet new people and develop relationships and a sense of belonging. Groups which actively intervene in communities to improve the social environment, for example by having a clean up day or organising a local government petition, have been shown to be particularly effective in creating a sense of cohesion in the community.
Routines such as eating meals together as a family or going to the park on Sundays provide opportunities for family members to develop social relationships amongst themselves. Family rituals also promote a sense of belonging. Bedtime routines are associated with better sleep patterns amongst children. Family routines may also make it easier for children to cope with stress such as parental separation or divorce.
More tips on spending time with family
Parents may experience improvements in their social environment by adjusting their work schedules, for example by freeing up time to participate in community activities or organisations. Australian employees have an obligation to grant parents flexible working arrangements in reasonable circumstances. Parents should therefore be aware of their entitlements as doing so may enable them more of their time to focus on their community and family commitments.
More information on work life balance
More information on work life balance and parenting
Parents should also encourage their children to develop social relationships through play. Playing is one of the primary means by which children develop social skills and learn the abilities they need to form relationships with other children and adults. Playing promotes positive interactions between peers and reduces the likelihood of a child exhibiting aggressive behaviour. Cooperative (as opposed to competitive) games may be particularly useful for the development of pro-social behaviour as the success of the game is dependent on the group (not the individual) and children are encouraged to focus on the process of the game, rather than its outcome (the winner).
Parents may also contribute to their children’s health and development by improving their parenting skills. Parenting programs which teach parents to develop their children’s emotional competence have reported positive results, and that the development of emotional competence in children improves their social behaviour. Children who are emotionally confident are more likely to interact with other children and displayed fewer negative emotions which might interrupt their social relationships.
More information on parenting therapy
|For more information on various aspects of parenting, see Parenting.
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