Help them find strength, support, and belonging
They say it takes a village to raise a child. What if we replace the word “village” with “community”? A close community can give our children a sense of belonging, help them develop key social and emotional skills, and provide them with support as they grow. It can also make the world a better place. As parents and caregivers, we can help our children find their communities and foster these key connections for years to come.
Just how important are community connections? “They are fundamental for childhood development,” says mother, former teacher, and registered clinical counsellor Laura Henderson. “We need a sense of belonging. We’re not meant to go through life alone.”
Henderson works as a counsellor in a private practice and as a school counsellor at an elementary school, and she knows the value of community. “Children are the best example of the benefits of community,” she explains. “It’s wonderful to watch them grow, increasing their knowledge, skills, and experiences.”
In addition to creating a sense of belonging and helping with development, a strong and supportive community can provide young people with
Elaine Su is a mother, teacher-librarian, writer, and equity, diversity, and inclusion advisor who also champions the value of community. As a first generation Chinese-Canadian settler, she describes how community is a fundamental part of her culture and how this plays a role in raising her own family.
“You can’t care for that which you don’t care about, so I believe it’s vital that our kids care about the people around them, and vice versa,” Su explains.
Therefore, community teaches children that they matter, but it also teaches them that they’re not the only ones who matter. “Community is both something you gain from and something you give to,” Su says. “I want children to learn that we all have little and big roles to play in building and sustaining community.”
Henderson says that during the height of the pandemic, many young people struggled due to reduced social connections. She noted increases in stress, anxiety, and loneliness in children and teens—and the research backs up her observations.
Canadian data from the early weeks of the pandemic found that 57 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds suffered worse mental health than before the implementation of physical distancing methods. And according to a 2022 study that includes data from 11 countries, the pandemic affected the mental health of young people, exacerbating anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness. The study also noted the value of social connections in combatting these mental health struggles.
Just as our social connections change throughout our lives, a child’s community will change and grow as well. A four-year-old’s community will look different than a 12-year-old’s, for instance.
Community for very small children may include close family members and daycare or preschool teachers. Gradually, their communities will grow to include other familiar adults that they interact with often (such as neighbours, librarians, or mail carriers), plus friends. Older children will start to build community connections at school, at extracurricular activities, and perhaps even online (see “Internet Communities”).
According to Henderson, helping our children find and maintain positive relationships can often be as simple as modelling these positive relationships in our everyday lives. “Our children watch and pick up on everything we do, including how we speak to, and connect with, people in our communities—even how we relate to our partners!” she explains.
Henderson also encourages parents to actively teach their children communication skills, including how to listen to others and how to express their wants and needs.
Su gives an example of how even young children can help build community. “It’s about naming that good feeling you get when you see a dog you recognize and pet, and then when you see a particularly good stick at the park, you pick it up and leave it in their yard for them with a note. That’s building community.” These small acts can help teach children that they have capacity and agency.
As parents and caregivers, we need to recognize that since each child is unique, each child’s community will be unique. Henderson reminds us of the metaphor used by renowned psychologist Marsha Linehan, in which she cautions us against trying to be a rose if we’re actually a tulip, that we should instead “find a tulip garden.”
In other words, if your child has trouble fitting in or coming out of their shell, it’s possible they haven’t found the right community in which to truly thrive. Perhaps your child dislikes being on a soccer team, for example, but would love being part of a chess club or musical theatre group.
“One of the biggest problems I see is people encouraging their children to have connections, but not healthy ones,” says Henderson. “We need to validate being different, and think outside the box, providing social opportunities that fit our children.”
Although connections are important, it’s equally important that children have healthy connections. As parents, this means teaching our children how to set healthy boundaries. Henderson suggests the following tips.
Starting very young, give children a sense of control over their bodies and relationships: if they don’t want to give someone a hug, don’t force them.
For example, explain why we don’t hit people or touch people when they don’t want to be touched.
Even with negative emotions, let children know that if someone or something makes them feel bad or uncomfortable, they can trust their emotions and inner voice. Teach them to name and express these emotions.
Express emotions and model healthy boundaries in your own day-to-day life.
Tell them why and when there are limits to boundaries; for example, why they do, in fact, need to brush their teeth.
Can books help build community? Absolutely, says teacher-librarian Elaine Su. She describes books as “validating, affirming, and literally lifesaving.”
Referencing renowned literature professor Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Su explains how books can be mirrors (reflecting our own world back to us so we can see it clearly), windows (giving us glimpses into familiar or unfamiliar worlds), and sliding glass doors (allowing the reader to open up their perspectives and put themselves in someone else’s shoes).
In particular, reading children’s books that depict diversity through joy is particularly powerful, according to Su. “It shapes the way our kids frame their views of the world. In my view, it’s the easiest and most joyful way to unlearn a lot of the harmful biases and norms that most of us are steeped in, having grown up in societies that are really built around those biases and norms.”
Su adds that, in addition to providing books, public libraries are wonderful community hubs, offering a safe place and many free resources and programs for all ages.
Online connections can be meaningful, joyful, and important for young people: a child interested in a niche hobby might connect with like-minded kids, for example. The key is staying safe online. Parents can help by staying closely involved, setting rules, teaching their kids about privacy and media literacy, and setting up parental controls. Find out more from organizations such as mediasmarts.ca and protectkidsonline.ca.
Is your child or teen lonely? Counsellor Laura Henderson says that it can sometimes be hard to tell, and adults don’t always recognize loneliness in their children. Conversely, sometimes parents and caregivers assume that a quiet, introverted, or soft-spoken child is lonely, when they are not. It’s best to reach out to your child to see if they’re feeling lonely.
If they are, Henderson recommends “listening and validating their feelings, rather than listing reasons why they shouldn’t feel the way they do.”
Then you can make a realistic plan together. “Don’t promise them that they’ll go out tomorrow and make a new best friend,” she emphasizes. “Instead, think of a plan as a ladder, and focus on the first rung.” She suggests finding someone in their class that they might want to get to know better, or someone that they have something in common with. “Then, you can scaffold it with next steps.”
This is the perfect opportunity to foster your own community connections too.
Find a counsellor through your provincial association of clinical counsellors. Children and teens can also reach out directly to their school counsellors.