By Steve O’Hearn, Transitional Youth Worker, Bridging the Gap Program
I often reflect on my high school experience, whether it be the social circles, the extracurriculars, or the stressors of navigating the world as a teenager. I still remember, quite clearly, my first day of grade 9. It was the first time I had taken public transportation by myself and the first time I had to wear a uniform for school. Inevitably that first week of high school shaped a lot of the friendships I cherish to this day. I joined school sports teams and enjoyed social activities because of the friends I made. These relationships influenced my experience of high school, some of them positive, and others negative. When I see friends now so many years later, it is amazing how often we reminisce the good times we had in high school.
Now imagine navigating grade 9 during a pandemic, in a primarily virtual world; no school bus chatter, no gym class or lunch times to feel connected, no face-to-face interactions. This experience would have a massive impact on the relationships built during high school, as well as the way they choose to connect going forward, whether virtually or in person.
Building a Sense of Belonging for Youth
As a Transitional Youth Worker with Bridging the Gap program through Halton Children’s Aid Society, I am reminded of the stressors of high school by the youth I work with. While many of these are new, such as social media, a lot of the challenges are similar: how do they fit in, and where do they feel most connected?
Bridging the Gap works with young people aged 16-24 years who are at risk of or are experiencing homelessness across the Halton Region. While housing is our main priority with youth, we depend upon, and try to build, this sense of community in all our interactions. We meet youth in the community they call home, where they have access to key relationships. We connect with schools, community resources, and families, all with the idea of building healthy connections. Our faces may look familiar, and this familiarity helps build rapport with young people, expressed often with the ‘Hey I know you’ response from the youth we support.
Survey Findings on Youth Connections and Relationships
According to the 2021 Halton Youth Impact Survey, 30% of youth aged 13-18 years felt lonely. This is a statistic exasperated by the pandemic, and one that has real consequences for young people with the way they navigate the world and future relationships. The importance of feeling connected and being part of a community is so significant in all our lives. High school provides that opportunity, where like-minded individuals experience similar life stressors.
Over a ten-year career in the helping industry, one common factor that spreads across a diverse range of individuals is the importance of connection. Having meaningful and supportive relationships helps build resilience. The ability to be resilient helps youth navigate social pressure, academic stress, and, potentially, personal and familial struggles. In some cases, the meaningful relationship is with a parent, a friend, or a school guidance counsellor. The Halton Youth Impact Survey found that 88 percent of young people in Halton had at least one strong positive relationship with their family, friends, or teachers, which was associated with positive self-rated physical and mental health, higher levels of life satisfaction, high personal power, moderate to high self-esteem, and lower levels of social isolation and feelings of loneliness.
‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a motto that often hits home for so many, but I think what these results suggest is that sometimes that village might only be one individual in a young person’s eyes. One supportive meaningful relationship could make a huge difference to someone learning about themselves and about a world that seems to be constantly changing. The ability to feel stable, feel connected, and to be truly heard is what makes these relationships so special.
Follow up and Follow through
I have a few words that I live by in both my personal and professional life: follow up and follow through. While it may sound simple, it’s not always easy to do. A friend reaches out and we forget to text back. We say we will do something, but the demands of our day get in the way. Sometimes we just want time alone. Whatever the reason may be, follow up with those around you, check in on how they are doing, and take the time to listen. I said I would meet you on Tuesday at 4pm, I will be there at that time. Following through can be challenging due to the stressors of daily life, but when you do, those around you know that they can count on you. That is what makes a relationship impactful for youth. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or a friend, take the time to follow up and follow through with those around you, sometimes that can be all what someone needs.