The mass university migration is about to get underway, but not in the way we might be used to. The Coronavirus might change how people move around, how they go to university and what Freshers week will look like but some things never change. 

Clinical Psychologist, Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw gives us the lowdown on new relationships.

If you’re one of the thousands of young adults starting a new and exciting phase of your life at university it can be an exciting but challenging time. It might be the first time you’ve left home, moved to a new city or left school friends and family behind.

There are inevitably new relationships to be made; friends, tutors, study groups, and possibly new romances… and for some people this can be easy to do – but that’s not always the case.

The complexities of social interactions can, at times, be tricky for most people.

For some, it can also be scary and confusing. Why is that?

The way in which we react to new people is influenced by our past experiences of relationships. This process starts with our earliest relationship, our ‘primary caregiver’ typically a parent and then our other family members. If our family is loving, caring, nurturing and responsive to our needs we learn that others are trustworthy and predictable and we feel safe and special.

We then have a healthy ‘blueprint’ for future relationships, we find it easier to make friends at school and ask our teachers for help.

We have better self-esteem and stronger resilience against life’s up and downs.

So the social milieu of Freshers Week is exciting and manageable.

But what if you weren’t lucky enough to have this optimal start in life?

What if your primary caregiver was depressed, or in an abusive relationship? What if your household was chaotic, frightening and unpredictable? What if the adults around you were frightening and you felt unsafe, you weren’t made to feel special, but that you were bad, unimportant, worthless, unlovable ….

Then going to school you would likely be warier of other children, feel threatened by their approaches, be anxious and unable to take part in games and imaginary play. You would find it harder to trust your teacher and ask for help.

Making new relationship whether it was friendships or romantic relationships could leave you feeling unsettled, confused, trying to hide what you believed was your true ‘bad’ self. Freshers Week doesn’t sound so much fun from this perspective does it!

So if that is how you feel, what can you do about it?

If you are that person who maybe needs a little extra help, think about reaching out to your university’s student support network or student counselling service. The therapeutic relationship can be a good starting point to make some changes to the way you feel in relationships.

Or if you notice someone struggling to fit in, how can you help?

If you were lucky enough to have had a caring and nurturing upbringing and feel able to make new relationship – look out for others who seem to be finding it more tricky. They may be withdrawn or appear defensive. Give them a little extra time if you feel able, try to imagine what it’s like to live with the expectation that others are untrustworthy and getting close to someone will end up with you getting hurt.

If people can have a new experience in relationships this can change way their relationship blueprint works, they can use the new experience to start to relate to others differently. A small gesture can make a big difference in someone’s life – give them the hope that maybe relationships can be positive and bring joy into their lives.

Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw
Clinical Psychologist