Healthy Start Stories |
Daniëlle Remmerswaal

Fear and gloom amongst young people: ‘How do we ensure young people can better deal with setbacks in life?’

Concerns about the currently faced by youth. How do we ensure that young people cope better with the inevitable difficulties they encounter in life? Danielle Remmerswaal, assistant professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam and Ambition Lead within Healthy Start, talks about this.

“The current generation of young people faces significant challenges. Consider financial uncertainty, high academic and societal performance pressures, and housing market constraints. It’s no small feat. Some young people experience so much pressure and uncertainty that they develop feelings of sadness or anxiety. At the same time, setbacks and difficulties are also part of life. The real challenge lies in how young people navigate these obstacles. Support from friends and family members helps here. In addition, we know from research how important it is not to avoid negative emotions, but rather to recognize and express them. I want to know how we can help young people to face stress and difficult situations. I hope that more knowledge about this can increase the mental well-being of young people.”

I want to know how we can help young people to face stress and difficult situations

From music to science

“As a child, I had completely different ambitions than becoming a scientist: I dreamed of becoming a singer. I attended a specialized high school preparing me for the conservatory, where I received training in classical singing. However, I gradually discovered that my heart was not in this genre. The pleasure in singing slowly faded. Eventually, I chose a different direction and started studying Psychology.

That choice turned out to be a perfect fit. The study went smoothly and in my last year as a student I got a job as an assistant researcher. That was the moment my passion for research awakened. I decided to explore that passion further with a PhD research into anxiety in young children. Specifically, I was interested in the role parents play in the development of anxiety in children. After completing my PhD research, I briefly forayed into addiction research, finding the subject equally captivating.”

My focus is on whether young people can deal better with challenges if they have a better understanding of their emotions

“In 2019 I received a special request; whether I wanted to take the academic lead of the so-called ‘Student Wellbeing Program’ together with a fellow researcher. This is a program at Erasmus University and aims to improve the well-being of all students at the university, both through research and by implementing direct changes. I was immediately excited about this position. In recent years we have achieved a lot with our team. We collected data on more than 10,000 students and developed a smartphone app. This app contains various exercises that help students manage stress and deal with difficult situations. We have also set up a student living room with massage chairs, workshops, a pool table, and offer free coaching to all students. It is incredibly fun and insightful to fulfill this role. Now I know what it is like to both conduct research and make an immediate impact.”

Emotional well-being in young people

“As Ambition Lead within Healthy Start, I have been responsible for ambition project 4 for a year now. Within this project we focus on the mental well-being of young people. The experiences I have gained in recent years have come in handy in this regard. My focus is on whether young people can better deal with challenges in life if they have a better understanding of their emotions. We will investigate this question in various ways in the coming years.

Within our project we mainly focus on ‘social-emotional learning’. This refers to understanding, recognizing, controlling and expressing emotions. We are particularly interested in finding out whether learning these skills at school contribute to young people’s development. This is not a new subject by the way. On the contrary, there are already many studies available on enhancing social-emotional learning in education, but up until now a good overview is missing. Also we investigate which factors influence youth’s well-being, such as sleep, brain development and the use of smartphones. We also look into what youth themselves think they need to feel emotionally resilient. Our goal is to ultimately develop a comprehensive plan of action with which we can support young people in their emotional well-being. We involve not only other researchers, but also young people themselves and social partners.”

Within Healthy Start, the emphasis is on collaboration and sharing knowledge based on a common passion

“I hope that attention to emotional well-being will become as normal in schools as subjects such as Dutch and Geography. When young people learn to talk about emotions, I think they will feel more open to ask for help when needed. Too often, young people are ashamed of their negative thoughts and feelings. But life doesn’t always have to be perfect; it’s okay to search, grow, and work on your emotional and mental well-being.”

Collaborate instead of compete

“What is so valuable about Healthy Start is the emphasis on collaboration and sharing knowledge based on a common passion without focusing on individual performance. We avoid duplication of efforts and build on each other’s knowledge. That’s refreshing. Of course, I must also continue to pay attention to my own career. But I expect that these collaborations will be positive when applying for research grants, for example. Moreover, I learn a lot from working with social partners, such as the Netherlands Youth Institute (NJI), the Kindertelefoon and the Nationale Jeugdraad. Their perspectives enrich my own thinking.”

Opportunities and growth potential

“Of course, sometimes I also face challenges. Working within such a large consortium requires constant cooperation and coordination. That doesn’t always go smoothly. As a scientist, I am used to dropping in on a colleague, but when you work with various people at different locations, this becomes a lot more complicated. It is a constant search for the balance between collecting input and not overloading people. Fortunately, this works quite well by planning our meetings carefully and efficiently.

In the end, working within Healthy Start offers great opportunities and potential to grow. For example, I also gain a lot of knowledge about social-emotional learning. Very useful with two small children at home. In addition, I look forward to collaborating with the ‘Music for a Healthy Start’ programme, which investigates the role of music on the social, physical and emotional well-being of young people. This has even inspired me to take up singing again, something I have always missed.”

Daniëlle Remmerswaal’s Healthy Start perspective
“I look forward to eventually coming up with recommendations that will make a real difference for children and young people. It would be great if our ideas were actually taken up by politicians. In addition, I hope and expect that our work within Healthy Start will be the starting point of a new movement. Now we have the opportunity to conduct thorough research into social-emotional learning and to work together with young people and social partners on a concrete plan of action. I expect that this will lay a solid foundation so that we can ultimately continue to use our own research funds to continue to increase the emotional well-being of children and young people.”

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