The power of social relationships in youth

Meet… Reine van der Wal

Living long, healthy and happily without other people: it is almost impossible to imagine. Social relationships are very important to adults, but also especially for children. Social-psychology researcher Reine van der Wal investigates how people maintain social relationships in times of conflict and stress. “I try to expose the dynamic between relationship partners with research.” Recently, Van der Wal became a member of Utrecht Young Academy, where she wants to encourage a collective mindset at the university as an ambassador of the new Recognition and Rewards programme.

What do you research as a social psychologist?

“Ever since my PhD research, in which I focused on forgiveness among children, I occupy myself with social relationships. I keep being impressed with how important social relationships are. That's why I keep motivating myself for this theme. It's important for our happiness, our health and it's even related to mortality rates. Much attention is spent on loneliness, but I look at it from another perspective: what is the power of ACTUALLY having relationships? How does that work and especially how can we sustainably maintain relationships in times of stress and conflict?”

Within the UU youth theme Dynamics of Youth, you and colleagues in the UMCU-WKZ research child-parent relationships in which the children have chronic illnesses. What are your findings?

“We specifically focus on stress communication. If a child becomes chronically ill, it puts pressure on the entire family system. How a child feels also has influence on how the parents feel. If you don't talk about that stress and the illness, that's not just negative for the child itself, but that also has negative consequences for the parents. The same goes in reverse. If parents experience stress or are worried, that also affects the ill child.”

Don't underestimate the power of social relationships, which ensure that you function well and stay healthy, both mentally and physically.

You recently became a member of the Utrecht Young Academy. What do you want to achieve there?

“I dedicate myself as an ambassador of the UU programme ‘Recognition and Rewards’. In academia, we're used to working on research and publish on an individual title. But we have to teach ourselves to take the collective as a starting point and look what we can achieve together as a group of researchers. Like with collaborating in research from various academic disciplines. On top of that, we as a younger generation have to try to stimulate the academic system in all kinds of places and contribute to a positive academic work climate by doing so.

Dynamics of Youth is a research theme par excellence that is ahead of the curve in this and can be an example of how research can take place within various departments of UU and the UMCU. There is much talk here on what the roles are within a team, how to design the approach together and who takes which responsibility.”

Which insight from one of your research projects was special to you?

“Research that I carried out shows that children who forgive their parents after their divorce report a better well-being. We know that forgiving often has positive outcomes. The research showed that for this, it didn't matter how many conflicts there were or how long ago the divorce was. I'm once again impressed that forgiveness is so powerful, that despite what happened, forgiveness positively affects the well-being of youngsters.”

What more would you like to research in the future?

“As academics, we should be allowed to find the groups where social problems are happening more. For instance, there are high divorce percentages and more relationship conflicts among people with low social-economic statuses. Relationship research is mostly done among students and people with high social-economic statuses. But what do we see if we compare those two groups to each other? I think that because of worries over matters like money, health and work, relationships of couples with lower social-economic statuses come under pressure much faster.”

So the new Recognition and Rewards is primarily in people's mindset, but how to handle that practically?

“That's very challenging. I think it's a pitfall that we're going to change all kinds of procedures, but that the way of thinking hasn't changed yet. This should go hand in hand. People should also wonder how they're going to do this differently in their departments or surroundings. It's good that we take the time for that, because it's a long-term process. Fortunately, more and more is happening. This is required to show that we take these changes seriously. An example is that within FSBS, there is more and more attention for leadership development for people who do have these ambitions but are not supervisors yet."