Risk and resilience across the life course

Psychology is the study of mind and behaviour; it is diverse and multidisciplinary by nature. Historically, psychology is a young discipline. Here in Oulu, we are especially young, celebrating our 2nd birthday in August.
Professor Julia Jäkel

In psychology, individual humans are in the centre, and our work is focused on wellbeing and mental health. We study what humans need to thrive, to be healthy, successful, and happy in life. We study and teach how nature and nurture interact, to shape who are.

In our research, we often combine multiple methods, for example behaviour observations, standardised testing, interviews, experiments, and assessments of biomarkers such as brain imaging, stress hormones, or heart rate variability.

We study individuals across different time spans, which can range from milliseconds in micro-coding of behaviour to multigenerational and evolutionary changes. We take into account that humans are born as social creatures.

My personal main interest is to find out how risks in early life affect children, adolescents, and adults, and how we can support them to do well.

For instance, being born preterm, 4 to up to 18 weeks before their expected birth date, with an immature brain and organ systems has adverse consequences for children’s whole life-course. In Europe, around 8% of infants are born preterm, but the number is much higher in some other world regions, and each year over 15 million babies are born preterm globally. International studies consistently show that there are certain difficulties children born preterm face, we call this the preterm behavioural phenotype.

Children born preterm have an increased risk to struggle with cognitive and motor development, attention regulation, learning in school, particularly in mathematics, with forming friendships and social relationships with peers, and with anxiety and depression. We work closely with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries, mainly in the medical sciences and education, to address these difficulties and provide evidence-based support.

We study how we can protect children born preterm from their developmental risks. For example, our evidence shows that sensitive parenting helps preterm children do well in school and in life. Having close emotional connections with their mothers and fathers helps children successfully regulate their own behaviour and emotions, and master important developmental milestones such as sleeping through the night as infants, participating in social play in preschool, and paying attention in the classroom when they start formal schooling.

When we look at later ages, becoming financially independent and forming stable romantic relationships are among the most critical developmental milestones in young adulthood. Here, when we look at mental health, we have shown in our research that social support from romantic partners protects young adults who were born preterm from anxiety and depression.

In a similar setting in adulthood, we are currently publishing a bi-national study with data collected in Finland and Germany. Some of the young adults in this study were diagnosed with regulatory problems in their infancy, that is problems with crying, sleeping, and eating or feeding.

Compared with adults who did not have regulatory problems, they are at an increased risk for having mood disorders such as depression. Here, our data show that having social support from peers and friends decreases the risk for mood disorders, but only among adults who did not have regulatory problems in their early life. This is important for the planning and design of evidence-based interventions.

Immigrant children face challenges

We humans are social creatures. We need close relationships to thrive. We need skin-to-skin contact and real-life interactions to stay healthy. Our species is driven by motivations and goals that are of a largely social nature. Too often, the world of today lets us forget this. Especially after the years with COVID and social distancing, we are now studying how to support healthy social behaviours and close relationships.

Here, I would like to give another example of early life risk: growing up with an immigrant background. Societies are becoming increasingly diverse, in Finland and across the world. Immigrant children face many challenges, including discrimination and language barriers in schools, and they may struggle to live up to their full potential. We study how we can support immigrant families, how to facilitate successful language acquisition and social integration.

Integration is a 2-way street: Immigrants work hard to create a new life and contribute to their host society. But, the members of the majority group also need to do their part to be welcoming and embrace diversity. With teams across Europe, we study how we can actively remove some of the critical barriers, immigrants are facing in health and education. For example, not all immigrant languages are the same, and some languages may take longer to learn if they are very different from a person’s mother tongue. Multilingual support and cultural sensitivity are crucial. This must be addressed in the training of psychologists, teachers, nurses, and medical doctors. Also, the importance of having translators available, always, is being recognized and implemented by more and more institutions across Europe. Lack of language support can easily lead to severe misunderstandings, misdiagnoses, marginalisation, and social exclusion.

At the same time, our human need for close and loving relationships and emotional connection is universal: it applies to all humans and even across species, to all mammals. Speaking with our children in our mother tongue is foundational for forming these connections. However, the signals and emotions we exchange when we are emotionally connected are universal, they are the same in every language.

With an international team from Finland, the United States and Germany, we are currently collecting new data from a large multilingual sample of families. We observe and rate mothers’ and fathers’ social interactions with their young children. We will soon publish a proof-of-concept study, showing that emotional connection can be reliably rated irrespective of language and culture. It correlates with biomarkers such as heart rate variability, it is strongly associated with children’s development and mental health, and it can be improved through intervention.

In the next step, we are going to implement and evaluate our intervention with RCTs.

We humans are social creatures. In this current world, with all the challenges we are facing, my research is focused on our social interactions and how we can foster resilience in each other, across the whole life-course and across generations.

The article is based on a speech by Professor Julia Jäkel at the New Professors’ Inaugural Lectures event on April 24, 2023.


Professor of Clinical and Developmental Psychology
Values, Ideologies and Social Contexts of Education
University of Oulu

Julia Jäkel is Professor of Clinical and Developmental Psychology at the Faculty of Education and Psychology, University of Oulu. Her main research areas are early life risks and long-term resilience. Her goal is to contribute to understanding the complex biopsychosocial mechanisms that control mental health, cognitive, academic, and social development over time to design effective avenues towards intervention.