By Raising Children Network
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Dad 'high-five-ing' son with Mum on couch

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  • Almost three-quarters (72%) of young people aged 18-24 have been involved in social groups or community groups in the last 12 months, although only a small number volunteer regularly.
  • Almost a third (30%) of young people aged 18-24 have been involved in unpaid volunteer work in the last 12 months.
  • Over half (60%) of those who volunteer have parents who’ve done voluntary work.

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

Community activity and civic responsibility

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

There are lots of ways to take civic responsibility and be active in your community:

  • 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.

What teenagers get from being involved

It doesn’t matter what teenagers do. Any involvement is good!

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

For example, your family might have certain religious 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 draw some new conclusions about 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 the community.

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. This kind of experience gives him the chance to see how many skills he has and how valuable they can be.

Voluntary work and community activities are great opportunities to show initiative and develop skills to get a job. Take the sausage sizzle example again – it could be good experience in speaking to customers and handling cash. Volunteering at an aged care facility or working 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 a community activity could motivate your child to get more organised and start to manage her own time.

Self-confidence, mental health and wellbeing
Finding a community activity can boost teenagers’ self-confidence. Your child can learn to deal with a range of challenges, communicate with different types of people and build up his life skills and abilities in a supportive environment. This is also good for teenage 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. The positive feeling of belonging and having meaning can also 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 community involvement

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 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 a community theatre or art group together 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 run community work programs. You can get involved by talking with your child about your school’s program and the benefits it’s having 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 the community 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’s 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 12-02-2013
  • Acknowledgements

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