"...when positive “serve and return” relationships develop, which occur through reliably responsive and supportive interactions, they can actually buffer young children from the adverse effects of other stressors." 

-Center on the Developing Child at Harvard 


“Serve and return” interactions, or interactions that go back and forth through engagement and conversation create a foundation for relationships, a space that remains a safe space for learning,, exploring, and persevering.  

For a young child, this can be cooing back and forth, imitating their gestures and seeing them continue using them to have you imitate them again. This takes place in all relationships, whether it is a young child learning to use their first words or through the older years, having back and forth conversations to engage and build relationships with those around us. We even do this within our adult years as we make new friends, or getting to know a new romantic partner on a first date and enjoying an oxytocin release within our brains.  

We engage in these interactions each day, and they are what create the safe space in which we learn, play, experience, and navigate the world. All learning takes place within the safety of a relationship. For children who may experience ongoing stressors or adverse experiences, these “serve and return” relationships can create the safe space where they learn skills and strategies to continue to persevere through the obstacles and find relief to regulate to continue to face any challenges.  

It is the “serve and return” interactions that can also help create a new template, or foundational understanding of what a relationship might look like. A child who might have had adverse experiences within their relationships previously, may develop new understandings and templates of what a relationship can look like as they engage in “serve and return” interactions with new, safe adults.  

The relationship, repetition, and rhythm of these interactions help create neural networks. The back-and-forth interaction between the child and the caregiver, or the student and the teacher, or the employee and the boss, repeated many times a day for many days, builds new neurons and neural connection – a new template. 




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