Looking for ways to strengthen your role as a significant adult in the lives of kids?

By building positive emotional connections, adults in a variety of youth settings can contribute to healthy outcomes for young people.

Relationships with parents and other family members that are grounded in love, care and safety are essential to the healthy development of young people. Adults outside of the family circle also have powerful roles to play in the positive development of kids. Research published by Child Trends indicates that community adults who serve as formal or informal mentors for children and adolescents may significantly influence kids’ lives. Relationships with caring adults such as teachers, coaches, youth group leaders and neighbors can increase a young person’s likelihood of positive outcomes (such as the ability to stay calm when faced with challenges) and reduce their likelihood for negative outcomes (such as feeling depressed or being bullied).

Studies have shown that many young people have a relationship with a caring adult from outside the family setting. The National Survey of Children’s Health is a periodic survey that asks parents about several aspects of their children’s physical, emotional and behavioral health. According to survey responses from Michigan parents related to the area of healthy relationships, 93 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 have at least one adult mentor-like relationship in their school, neighborhood or community.

Whether you’re an adult who works with young people in a youth setting or an adult (like a neighbor) who interacts with kids in a less formal way, you may be interested in findings from a study recently published, New Directions for Youth Development (now called New Directions for Student Leadership). The study examined key aspects of relationship building that foster positive connections between young people and adults within afterschool program settings. One aspect identified was the importance of intentionally focusing on creating warm and supportive emotional connections with young people, and this applies to kids at any stage of development (from early childhood to adolescence). Building these connections means that adults are reliable, consistent and predictable, which sends messages to young people that they are trustworthy and can be counted on. It’s also helpful if adults display genuine engagement with kids, which involves taking time to get to know young people as individuals and to provide opportunities for kids to get to know them. Adults can also deepen their connections with kids by displaying empathy (the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of others) and showing positive regard for young people. The notion of positive regard involves warmly accepting kids without judgment, which conveys to young people that their thoughts, feelings and ideas matter. The authors of the study stressed that receiving messages of positive regard may be especially important for those young people who are frequently the focus of messages that reflect negative stereotypes related to their race or other differences.

No matter what your role – youth leader, afterschool program staff member, educator, parent, coach, neighbor or other community member – consider the ways that you might strengthen and deepen emotional connections with the young people in your life. If you do work or volunteer in youth settings, consider ways you can work in partnership with young people to create positive settings that foster healthy relationships among young people and between youth and adults. Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of resources designed to support the healthy development of young people. These include the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which offers a curriculum specifically designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and settings.