Risks, resilience and a good start into live

What do humans need to thrive, to be healthy, successful, and happy in life? How do our biological origins and environmental experiences interact over time? How do they shape who we become?
Small yellow flower on the palms of a woman

In our teams, we study development from birth throughout the life-course. We study how risks in early life affect children, adolescents, and adults, and what they need to do well.

For instance, being born preterm, 1-4 months too early, with an immature brain and organ systems has consequences for the whole life-course. Traditionally, risks such as preterm birth have been studied from a deficit perspective. But we ask: To what extent can good environments protect children from early risks? Our empirical evidence shows that sensitive parenting helps preterm children do well in school and in life. Likewise, social support from romantic partners protects young adults who were born preterm from emotional disorders like anxiety and depression.

This is not surprising. Humans are social creatures. We need emotional connections and close relationships to thrive. Especially after the years with COVID and social distancing, we are now studying how to support healthy social behaviours among children and youth.

Another example of early life risk is immigrant background. We are seeing steadily increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees, in Finland and across the world. As shown for example by the PISA study results, immigrant children face many challenges, discrimination, and language barriers in schools, and they may struggle to live up to their full potential. However, this depends on educational and societal contexts. It is our responsibility as researchers to collect data, to find out how we can support immigrant families, how to facilitate successful acquisition of the majority language and social integration.

So I ask, what can we do to foster resilience – doing well in life even when facing risks and challenges?

We conduct studies to identify specific variables that protect from risks, such as sensitive parenting and supportive social relationships. Variables we can modify through intervention.

One thing I have learned over the past two decades is that meaning well does not automatically equal doing something good. In my field, research questions must be answered by empirical evidence, and that evidence then informs practice. We must first understand what works, and for whom, and then we communicate our results to the public, to all stakeholders.

There is much that remains to be learned about the complex interplay of risk and resilience across the life-course. With my work, I want to contribute some explanations for how to ensure a good and healthy start into live for all children.

Photo: Lina Trochez, Unsplash

About the author:

Julia Jäkel is Professor of Clinical and Developmental Psychology at the Faculty of Education, 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, and social development over time to be able to design effective avenues towards intervention.