At the heart of community is relationship. Human beings, similar to many mammals, have a fundamental need for relationships, both with other individuals and at a wider group or community level. Although people vary greatly in their particular drive to fulfil this need, when we look back through history and across our diverse cultures, our consistent pattern of forming long-term relationships seem to be one of the key ingredients in what makes us human.
But what is a community, and what is the difference between a group of people and a community? There are many definitions, but one simple way to describe community is as ‘a group of people who have a shared sense of purpose.’ We could also include the idea that communities last longer than groups. This would mean that groups of people that come together for a very short-term purpose may not be communities. For example, when the New Zealand Government was considering the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, large numbers of people came together to protest this legislation. We would probably not consider the crowds that showed up to protest as a community, even though they had a very clear purpose. However, the organisers of these protests who worked together to inform the public, plan the protests, and gather the people would probably be considered a community due to their shared history, purpose, and plans to continue working together to challenge legislation that conflicts with their shared values.
While the phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ may be seen as a bit cliché, the message is clear that a child’s development is promoted by having connections to relationships beyond their immediate family context. This ‘village’ can serve many purposes, both directly for the child and indirectly by providing support for a child’s parents.
In the following paragraphs we will explain how adolescence is an important period in life for making those connections with groups and communities beyond the family, and how these larger connections also serve an important function that can either promote healthy, positive development or undermine it. Rather unsurprisingly, research has found that when young people feel connected to family, peers, school, and their neighbourhood they show higher levels of psychological well-being and fewer behavioural problems. When considering the changes that take place during adolescence, these years of transition from childhood to adulthood represent an important opportunity for young people to begin establishing their own place in society. Part of this ‘place-finding’ involves forging new connections with groups of peers and adults beyond the immediate family.
We will start by considering some of the changes that young people experience during the adolescent years (don’t worry, we won’t bring up puberty), and the implications these might have for young people’s sensitivity towards group and community connections. First, considerable research in recent decades has shown that the adolescent brain experiences profound change over these years, as specific areas of the brain mature, and connections across different regions are refined and strengthened.
From early to mid-adolescence, the limbic system begins to mature. This central part of the brain is involved in hormone control, memory, and emotional and motivational reactions. During this time, young people develop a heightened sense of attraction to reward and excitement, which is further fanned into flames in the presence of peers and any opportunity for social acceptance or increased status. The part of the brain that has the job of supervising this drive for reward and excitement is our prefrontal cortex—located just behind your forehead. Curiously, this section starts maturing a couple of years later than the limbic system, continuing the process into our early to mid-twenties. This developmental gap is like supercharging the engine of your car and then waiting a couple of years to improve the brakes, suspension, and handling. This helps to explain the dramatic rise in risk-taking behaviour during early and mid-adolescence (both the positive and negative varieties), and young people’s increased anxiety about social exclusion or rejection.
While these changes start to take place, the amount of time young people spend with their immediate family gradually reduces and is replaced by more time spent with peers and a variety of adults outside of family (teachers, coaches, employers, etc). The expectations that society has for adolescents are also very different to children, with adolescents expected to show much greater self-control, responsibility, problem-solving, and independent decision making. More than any previous time in their life, they must try to find a balance between maintaining those foundational family relationships and their need for autonomy—their ability to make decisions and take action that is self-determined and consistent with their developing identity. This work of forming identity is a key task for every adolescent, and is achieved not so much by individual navel-gazing, but by exploring the question, ‘Who am I?’, and probably, ‘Why am I?’, within a network of relationships.
Taken together, these combined forces create a strong motivation for young people to become part of a group they identify with, and groups that offer opportunities for novel experiences—especially where there is some element of risk—provide the great reward of social acceptance and status. Within these groups, young people begin to experience themselves through the eyes of others. This has been eloquently described by American psychologist and theologian James Fowler as: “I see you seeing me; I see the me I think you see.” In adolescence, often the most significant people in a person’s life are those whom she is most attuned to, trying to see herself reflected through their gaze and what that perspective might say about who she is.
It might be helpful to illustrate some of this with two stories based on our experiences working with and interviewing adolescents. Sarah was brought up in a tight-knit family with stable, nurturing parents who had strong connections to a local community. Her parents encouraged her involvement with the youth group, which she remembers as having a big impact on her views of herself and the world around her. Due to the creativity of the leaders, there were always interesting events running, which she found exciting. The youth group was small and fairly diverse, however, Sarah recalls feeling very connected to both her peers and her leaders. Because Sarah had these significant relationships in her community and youth group, she felt supported throughout her teenage years. She rarely made a significant decision without telling her friends and leaders about it and hearing their perspectives. She also did not feel the need to follow her school friends down the partying track. Although she snuck out a few times to attend some of these parties, the sense of purpose and connectedness she felt within her youth group had a much stronger pull on her decision making.
Ross experienced a home life that was not much different to Sarah’s. Ross was also raised by committed parents who were involved in their local community, but Ross was never able to get connected, and felt he never fit in. School was especially a challenge for a boy with high energy levels and a disposition towards attention- and sensation-seeking, and he was labelled as disruptive and rebellious by his teachers. He entered his teenage years feeling as if the world had already judged his character, and the only opportunity school provided (he thought) was the chance to make friends with a similar group of boys who also disliked being constantly told, “Sit down and be quiet!” Always looking for a new thrill, sneaking alcohol led to cannabis use, and the consumption of both grew over time. By the age of 16, Ross and his friends were desperate for more thrills and freedom and they began ‘borrowing’ their parents’ cars and sometimes the cars of people in their neighbourhood. Ross recalls the constant search for ways to “feel alive.” It was always “madness” with his mates, and they loved it. Their failing results at school and the increasing levels of conflict at home only seemed to bind the group of friends closer together, who referred to each other as brothers and their group as ‘the gang.’ A turning point came one weekend when, low on cash and unable to buy alcohol or cannabis, one of the gang jokingly suggested robbing a dairy. Taunts of, “You don’t have the balls!” ensued which served to embolden each person in the group. A plan was quickly hatched and Ross’ pathway from risk taking and behaviour problems to criminal offending was realised.
We’ve observed that in the absence of formal opportunities and encouragement to get connected with a community, young people will create their own communities based on shared experiences, interests, and social status. While Ross’ story certainly does not represent every young man or woman who does not have a strong community connection outside of the home, this story is not that extreme, and many elements closely resemble the backgrounds and experiences of the young men described in Jarrod Gilbert’s book: Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand.
Ross had unmet social needs which drew him to a group of boys with similar temperaments and interests, which gave him the sense of connection and social identity that he did not find in school or his parents’ community. In contrast, Sarah’s youth group and community exhibited a powerful influence over how she chose to spend her time.
While at one level these appear to be two very different stories, at another level, the process of community connection was the same for both Sarah and Ross. Both young people found a group of peers they could relate to and connect with. Once a part of the group, a shared social identity developed, providing both security and significance and influencing life choices.
Community leaders, sports clubs, youth groups, churches, and schools are faced with the challenge of fostering a community for young people that leads to healthy, positive outcomes, as opposed to maladaptive—or, negative—outcomes. Most would agree that maladaptive expressions of community for young people would include gang affiliations, substance abuse, unsupervised risk-taking, and destructive and violent behaviour. So how can community connections that lead to positive, healthy development be encouraged? This issue is being addressed by a growing body of research that focuses on young people’s strengths, the resources available to them in their environment, and their potential for positive development.
Recently completed research at the University of Canterbury collated 14 different attributes of youth programmes that help promote positive youth development. One of the most essential features of any of these programmes is to foster positive relationships between adults and young people. In our representative examples above of Sarah and Ross, that is one of the key differences in each of their experiences of community. A number of adults in Sarah’s life helped her to feel included and valued, and these relationships provided a safe space to explore challenges and difficult decisions. In contrast, Ross felt excluded and judged. What young person would be attracted to a community if that was their experience with the adults?
The goal of healthy youth-adult relationships is at the heart of many of New Zealand’s leading youth programmes. One example is 24-7 YouthWork, which has 175 youth workers in 74 schools (mostly secondary) around the country, and focuses on building positive relationships between the adult youth workers and students, while supporting the school’s needs for additional programmes or services. A consistent theme from the evaluation research for 24-7 YouthWork is that the positive youth-adult relationships help students feel more connected with their peers and school, and improves their motivation and behaviour.
Another important feature of youth programmes that promote positive community connections is the inclusion of young people in the decision-making and leadership of the programme. When young people are encouraged to not just participate, but also to contribute and assume a leadership role, it serves to affirm their autonomy and competence—further equipping and empowering them for future opportunities. Being ‘promoted’ to leadership can be a powerful experience of being ‘seen,’ providing identity-forming evidence that someone sees your potential, and the unique contribution that you can bring to the community. Every young person needs someone who is able to look past disruptive and attention-seeking behaviour, and see a unique and valuable person, with his or her own unique strengths and talents waiting to be discovered.
In a recent study on the spiritual development of youth, we discovered that young people who felt the most connected and committed to their church communities had some kind of leadership role—usually as leaders in a youth group—and community connection was a stronger predictor of faith than relationship quality and the religiosity of family and friends.
One of the paradoxes of the digital age is that it is easy for young people to create community in the absence of relationships—for example, with friends on Facebook or followers on Instagram. There has never been so many ways to connect with people, yet such high numbers of people report feeling isolated and disconnected that loneliness has been described as “one of the most significant challenges facing Western society in the 21st century” by researchers in the UK. When we consider the statistics for health and well-being of New Zealand’s young people compared to other countries, there is considerable cause for concern.
New Zealand’s youth have high rates of mental health problems, suicide, bullying, and substance use. Fortunately, there are also a large number of local and national organisations working diligently to address many of these issues.
The challenge remains to effectively translate the evidence from research on adolescent development and programme effectiveness, so our youth organisations can incorporate it into their policy and practice, and further promote healthy youth communities. Over the next several years, the New Zealand government will be investing significant funds into research on adolescent resilience as part of the Better Start: National Science Challenge. With a better understanding of the process by which young people find meaning and identity within strong community connections, researchers, clinicians, youth community leaders, and youth themselves can come together in these projects and address these challenges. We hope this will be the start of a great community.