By Raising Children Network
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Kids volunteering in a community garden

Getting involved in local community activities or volunteering can boost teenagers’ confidence and self-esteem and help them build new skills. You can get your child started by taking part as a family or by helping your child find activities that interest her.

Community activities and civic responsibility

Community activity is part of ‘civic responsibility’. It’s about doing things in our community because we want to or feel we should, rather than because we have to by law.

You can take civic responsibility and be active in your community by:

  • joining a Surf Life Saving Club, a scouting group or a local environmental or clean-up group
  • helping with a primary school play, or coordinating or coaching junior sport
  • setting up an arts space for the community or getting involved in youth radio
  • being part of a youth advisory group through the local council
  • promoting causes – for example, refugee rights, bushfire recovery and charities.

Your child might be interested in online civic or community activities – for example, an online campaign to save a local area of parkland. Online community involvement can motivate teenagers to get involved in face-to-face community activities.

What teenagers get from being involved in community activities

It doesn’t matter what teenagers do. Any involvement is good! When you get involved in community activities, you get a lot of personal rewards and feelings of achievement 

Role models
By getting involved with community activities, teenagers can come into contact with like-minded peers and positive adult role models other than their parents. Interacting and cooperating with other adults encourages teenagers to see the world in different ways. It puts their own family experiences and values into a wider context.

For example, your family might have certain religious or spiritual beliefs – or none at all – but when your child comes into contact with others who believe different things, perhaps through some charity work, he might see some new ways of putting beliefs into action for the good of others.

Identity and connection
Young people are busy working out who they are and where they fit in the world. They try out different identities, experiment with different styles of dress and might try out a range of different activities and hobbies.

Being involved in community activities can give your child a positive way of understanding who she is. As a result, she might come to see herself as helpful, generous, political or just a ‘good’ person in general. Being involved in community activities can also help create a sense of being connected to her local community and the wider world.

Community activities give teenagers the chance to apply the skills they already have. For example, your child could use the cooking skills he’s learned at home at a community sausage sizzle or at a soup kitchen.

Voluntary work and community activities are also great opportunities to show initiative and develop skills to get a job.

For example, the sausage sizzle could give your child experience in speaking to customers and handling cash. Volunteering for Meals on Wheels might help your child prepare for getting a part-time job as a waiter. For a child interested in being a vet, helping out at an animal shelter or washing and walking local dogs is a good way to demonstrate commitment and get a reference.

Being able to manage free time while balancing leisure, work and study is an important life skill. Being part of community activities could motivate your child to get more organised and start to manage her own time.

Self-confidence, mental health and wellbeing
Community activities can boost teenagers’ self-confidence. Your child can learn to deal with challenges, communicate with different people and build up his life skills and abilities in a supportive environment. This is also good for your child’s self-esteem.

It’s also a great foundation for general and mental health and wellbeing.

It can be very positive psychologically for young people to have something that gets them involved, where others expect them to turn up and take part, and where they’re supported to achieve something as part of a group. These positive feelings can help protect young people from sadness and depression.

Being involved in some kind of community activity can also reduce the likelihood of substance abuse, mental illness and criminal activity.

When I was 10, I was taken along to deliver Meals on Wheels to some elderly locals. I was unimpressed, and skulked in the doorways. But at the third house I met a wonderful tiara-wearing octogenarian. She told me about her time as a performer at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. Somehow she had me taking out her kitchen bin and heating her lunch as she lectured me on making sure I could always support myself independently as a woman. I walked out on cloud nine!

Encouraging involvement in community activities

Start early
There are lots of ways for your child to be involved from early on.

Children can also be more naturally involved when they see their parents doing it – perhaps being on the preschool committee, spending weekends at local festivals or swapping favours with other local families. Finding the time to develop these early childhood networks with other families and local groups is a great way to encourage later involvement.

Children are also more likely to get involved if their friends are. As children enter adolescence, peers become more influential in their lives. One way of encouraging community involvement might be to suggest that your child undertake an activity with a friend who might already be involved in the community.

Take your child’s personality into account
Is your child a quiet, slow-to-warm-up character, who might like to observe the first few times? Perhaps bringing a close friend along to a ‘clean up the park day’ would be a good start. Or does your child love leading and being in the limelight? Then mentoring a group of primary school kids doing a school performance might appeal.

For more ideas, you could also think about the kind of books your child reads or websites she visits. These can give you a good idea of what she’s interested in.

Model civic responsibility
Take your child with you if you drop off a meal to a new parent or help someone move furniture. You can explain that it feels good to do things for others. You could also try taking him to a rally or political event so he can see other young people engaged in broader community activities and issues.

Help your child get started
If your child wants to get involved but is a bit worried about it, a family approach might help. You might try joining a local sailing, football, soccer or photography club as a family. Or you and your child could join an art group together or community theatre where you work behind the scenes.

Your child might need your help to make the first contact with a group. Cold-calling can be challenging, so if you help your child do the groundwork, you might be able to increase her chances of success.

Some organisations have a minimum age for volunteers, so it’s worth finding this out early on. 

Build on what your child is already doing
If your child isn’t that interested in community activities, one option is to accept this and just keep an eye out for future opportunities. But if you feel a push in the right direction is needed, you could try to build on things he’s already doing. 

For example, if your child is in the debating team at school, she might enjoy a junior toastmasters group or an opportunity to speak up on a youth issue. If she enjoys team sports, she could help out with some junior coaching. If she’s done some fundraising at school, she might like to put this experience into practice raising interest and funds for a new skate park.

You could also encourage your child to look around the family and local area to see if there’s someone he could help. Being community-minded doesn’t have to happen in the wider community. It can also be helping a new mum with the washing, spending time gardening for grandparents or helping a neighbour with homework.

Managing risk

It’s normal to be concerned about your child’s safety if she’s going off independently for a day or even longer, or to a group that you know very little about. It can help to do some preparation.

For example, depending on your child’s age, you might decide to meet any adults your child is going to work with, or ensure the adult volunteers or workers have a Working with Children check. You could also agree on ground rules with your child about where he’s allowed to do his community work – for example, you might agree that a public facility or space is OK, but a private home isn’t.

Most schools, colleges and universities run community work programs. You can get involved by talking with your child about these programs and the benefits they have in the community.

Helping children with special needs get connected

Young people with special needs can get just as much out of being involved in community activities as typically developing children.

It’s also really important for them to be represented in all kinds of community projects. This doesn’t necessarily mean placing disability at the forefront. If your child is interested, she could link up with a group that understands her particular needs – for example, an organisation such as Hearing Impaired Youth.

Your child might prefer mainstream opportunities. His views as a young person will be valued in these activities, and his involvement will benefit other young people. You might want to consider hands-on experiences, things with tangible results and projects with a commitment to diversity.

From a practical point of view, it can help to consider your child’s needs in relation to medications, bathroom routines, eating and so on. You could also think about how to make it easy for your child to fit in.

Community organisations and activities

You could also check out state-based volunteering websites:

  • Last updated or reviewed 11-05-2015
  • Acknowledgements

    This article was written in collaboration with Helen Rimington, Director of Family Wellbeing at Drummond Street Services.