A smile, a kind word, an ear to listen, an offer of help, a moment of having fun together or a sentence that begins “I am so proud of you for …” or “I like the way you …” or “thank you for …” or “Go on, have a go, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get it right”. You would not believe the difference this makes.

And this is not just about the day someone is having but potentially how their whole life turns out – especially if that person is a child or young person who is otherwise in an ocean of adversity and you are in some way significant to them – an aunt, sports coach or teacher.

These micro-moments of high quality connection are literally magical. They can change how someone sees themselves, other people and the world around them. Constructive, supportive interactions not only enable young people to rise above challenges and adversities, but there is evidence they can impact on our brain, biology and genetic expression. Just think of it, a regular smile for someone who is struggling is not only supportive, but can alter the structure of their brain – amazing!

I recently submitted an academic paper on the social aspects of resilience. No idea if it will be published, but reading the research evidence made it clear that resilient adaptation is not so much an internal trait as the outcome of good, healthy relationships. Although some pre-dispositions do help, kids do not pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Even pre-dispositions are modified by the relational environment.

It begins before birth. The qualify of a young mother’s friendship and support network can impact on how well the birth itself goes, how closely she bonds with her child and then how her child develops – in all aspects of their development. It seems hard to believe but the evidence is confirmation of what many communities already know – it takes a village to raise a child. Isolation and negativity are toxic to the wellbeing of the next generation.

Although healthy psychological development is boosted by close, nurturing attachment in those early months and years, what happens in the wider context at school and in the community also matters more than you might imagine. The human brain is not only primed for connection but also favours pro-social interactions. Oxytocin has a primary function in the reproductive system but researchers are also increasingly interested in its influence on social behaviour. Although still under investigation there is evidence not only for its essential role in maternal bonding but also increasing trust, positive communication and reducing stress and anxiety throughout life. There appears to be a positive feedback loop at play. Positive interactions raise oxytocin levels, which then foster greater warmth and cooperation between people.

Bruce Johnson* carried out a study in South Australia over 8 years in which he identified the ordinary, everyday, relational ‘little things’ that teachers do to nurture and promote their student’s resilience and ability to cope with tough situations. Students talked about a teacher who ‘showed an interest’, ‘looks out for you’, ‘helps you’ and was just good to be around. One girl said this about her teacher. “She says: ‘Hello’ – it just makes me happy, just her being there”.

When you have the choice of swearing or smiling, choose smiling. If you have the choice of a harsh or a kind word, choose to be gentle. Show a child you think they have something to offer, and then help them meet your high expectations. It doesn’t take time so much as thought, and it is not difficult, especially if you practice.

Positive relationships are powerful. We can all be everyday magicians, and yet may never know the spells we are weaving.  Some may even save lives.

Illustration courtesy of Tiny House Blog: Tammy Strobel

* Johnson, B. (2008). Teacher-student relationships which promote resilience at school – a micro-level analysis of student’s views. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 36(4), 385-398.