Adaptive relationships play a major role in healthy child development. Caregiver-child relationships have the potential to shape a variety of child developmental outcomes, often based on interactions between child biology and the environment. They lay the foundation for the development of secure attachment, social and cognitive abilities, and physical and mental health [1, 2]. Humans are hard-wired to use social proximity as means of regulation [3]. Reciprocal interactions with caregivers help us to form our self-regulatory abilities [4] and positive relationship experiences with caregivers shape the expectations we have towards people in future relationships. Importantly, not only relationships with caregivers but also those with peers are important to our sense of belonging, impacting children’s well-being [5], and are important contributors to the development of social skills such as empathy [6].

There are circumstances which can compromise the ability of parents to form secure relationships with their offspring: caregivers who suffer from mental illness, have experienced childhood maltreatment, or experience ongoing stress and burden may sometimes lack the sufficient resources to respond adequately to their children’s signals and needs. Maladaptive interaction patterns can be important mediators in the process of intergenerational transmission of psychopathology [7]. Moreover, it is important to consider reciprocal associations between vulnerabilities of both parents and their child. Just as parental mental illness and adverse childhood experiences, child characteristics such as temperament and psychopathology shape the caregiver-child relationship and can pose challenges on parenting. From a developmental perspective, children with biological vulnerability who do not experience sufficient co-regulation by their caregivers are more likely to develop difficulties in self-regulation [8]. Moving forward, more dysregulated children often struggle with peer acceptance, which further diminishes the chance of positive relationship experiences. However, if existent, both positive peer relationships as well as positive caregiver-child relationships have the potential to act as important buffers in the presence of problems in the respective opposite relationship area [9, 10]. As such, interpersonal relationships can be both protector and risk in the context of developmental psychopathology.

Given the relevance of social relationships for the development and maintenance of mental health, and social skills and cognition being important predictors of psychosocial functioning, the need for investigations of associations, interactions, and transactions between social relationships and psychopathology is evident.

Part I of this special issue focusses on “Psychopathology through the Lens of Social Impairments and the Effects of Early Parenting Experiences.” Relevant research interests in the field of family relationships include the reciprocal effects between children and caregivers. With regards to these reciprocal associations, the developmental age of children is a factor to consider. Evers and colleagues [11] present an interesting longitudinal study examining transactional influences between parenting stress and child behavior problems at multiple time points between the age of 4 to 36 months, filling a research gap regarding transactional processes starting in infancy. In their full sample of psychosocially burdened families, they could show that parenting stress predicted behavior problems at subsequent time points and vice versa, except for the first time period between 4 and 12 months of age. Analyses differentiating between families with higher vs. lower burden, however, revealed that in families with higher psychosocial burden, behavior problems of 4-month-olds did significantly predict subsequent parenting stress, indicating that child effects in infancy could be buffered by psychosocial resources or might be exacerbated by adversity. Developmental timing is also a factor of interest in the study of Dittmann and colleagues [12]. Challenging the sensitive window hypothesis, they show that maternal depression within the first 18 months of the child’s life was associated with child emotional and behavioral problems in preschool age only through their relationship with later, concurrent maternal depressive symptoms; i.e., whereas maternal depressive symptoms during the developmental phase of attachment formation did not directly affect later child development, chronicity of maternal depressive symptoms from infancy throughout the preschool phase seemed to be a particular factor of risk. In their review, Reck and colleagues [13] present how interactive regulation in mother-infant dyads takes place in mutually coordinated interactions of rupture and quick repair. They outline how mothers’ own embodied caregiving experiences and postpartum psychopathology can impact their ability to mentalize and respond sensitively to children’s needs. Based on these theoretical underpinnings, they present promising parent-infant interventions supporting co-regulative skills and self-reflection by means of video feedback and body-oriented interventions.

Part II of this special issue is concerned with the topic of “Parents, Peers and Teachers as Social Influencers on Self-Harm, Risk Behaviors and Borderline Personality Disorder.” Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a disorder for which developmental models emphasize the role of adverse relational experiences. Interpersonal dysfunction, moreover, belongs to the core symptoms of BPD and interpersonal events often trigger the expression of symptoms such as self-harm and anger. A developmental perspective highlights that individuals experiencing dysfunctional interaction or insufficient co-regulations in their homes are also at risk for negative peer relationships [8]. This issue includes an investigation of Franssens and colleagues [14], who examined bullying experiences as a mediator between pre-adolescent and adolescent BPD pathology. Whereas both bullying perpetration and victimization were related to subsequent BPD pathology, only bullying victimization was a mediating link between pre-adolescent and adolescent BPD features; i.e., dysregulation in pre-adolescents made individuals more likely victims of bullying, which was a factor in continued dysregulation. These findings make a case for the notion that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a decreased likelihood to make positive or corrective relational experiences in which they experience belongingness and security. In turn, this could decrease the likelihood for remission of symptoms. A possible buffering effect of positive relationships on self- or other-directed harm was found by Steinhoff and colleagues [15], where a positive teacher-student relationship could predict a cessation of harm. In this study, bullying victimization was associated with self- or other harm, but changes in victimization did not predict cessation of harm. The negative impact of peer aggression can thus be long-lasting, and experiences of exclusion and non-acceptance go under the skin of vulnerable youth.

Together, the articles collected in this special issue illustrate the complex interplay between relational experiences and youth psychopathology. Evidence shows that not only do early relationships shape child and adolescent outcomes, but children and their characteristics play a role in shaping their relationships. Further, this special issue indicates that there is a variety of different relationships during human development that may add to risk and resilience of an individual. Crucially, relationships can be a risk factor as well as a great resource in the life of young people including their mental health. As a consequence, a lot of the work implicates the need for support of vulnerable families and other social networks as well as promote healthy and supportive relationships from early onwards.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

The authors received no specific funding for this editorial.

Leonie Fleck prepared the first version of the manuscript and finalized the last version. Michael Kaess and Anna Fuchs developed the idea of the special issue and editorial, and contributed to and revised the manuscript and approved the final version.

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