Compassion, connection, community. Few would deny that these are important aspects of all our lives

However, the time has come to put these concepts at the forefront, especially when we are talking about the mental wellbeing of our young people. The impact of the Covid pandemic on our society will undoubtedly ripple across many years but we have an opportunity now to shift our priorities in terms of how we treat our children and young people.

Covid restrictions reminded us, only too painfully, of our connection to connection. As dependent little newborns, we humans simply cannot survive without connecting with another human. As we battled the pandemic, we missed folk, even the folk we sometimes argue with. We had to disconnect physically and, to some extent, emotionally, and we were all craving those momentary encounters which we too often took for granted. Our young people were deprived of that precious contact with their peers as we all pined for a return to normal relationships, invaluable in both their simplicity and incredible healing power.

In seeking to understand this inherent need for relationships, we can turn to attachment theory – just one theory explored in Glasgow University’s new course ‘Supporting young people’s mental wellbeing post-Covid’. Attachment theorists highlight how significant our first relationships are for our developing sense of self. How our needs are met in our earliest days can have a profound impact on the ‘internal working model’ that we carry into life. Where those early life experiences include neglect, abuse and other trauma we learn that adults cannot be trusted, that the world is a dangerous place and that we are not worthy of love. Survival is our priority and all else must wait until we feel safe. In contrast, positive relationships can be the soft blankets into which we relax and find warmth.

Given that the narrative dominating much of the pandemic was one of generalised anxiety and fear, the message our young people were receiving was that the world is unsafe. As such we can understand why levels of anxiety, depression and regressive behaviours increased. Denied the opportunity to play freely with peers as well as potentially living with adults who may not have been able to attune and adequately respond to their children could have had considerable impact on the child’s evolving sense of themself.

Their ‘internal working model’ which is formed via the interactions and relationships with those close to them, may well have had to face apparent rejection and lack of response where nurture and comfort were sought. While we are aware of the neuroplasticity of the brain and the power of relationships to ‘heal’ and create new pathways in the brain as the child grows, we should consider how these experiences may have impacted the child’s view of themselves and their trust in adults.

It’s our duty now to reflect on the community around our children, the systems and practices we have in place, and ask ourselves if compassion and connection feature as prominently as they should.

Dr Christine Hadfield is a former secondary languages teacher and now a lecturer in Initial Teacher Education at the University of Glasgow