The Power of Positive Social Connections

How can we prevent child abuse & neglect and strengthen & stabilize families?

The Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework is an international initiative that was developed to enhance and focus on five specific factors that keep children safe from abuse & neglect and strengthen & stabilize families. This framework addresses the skills, strengths, resources, supports and coping strategies present in all families. As the National Alliance of Children’s Trust and Prevention Funds states, “Focusing on what is ‘strong’ with families instead of only what is ‘wrong’ is a way to honor a family’s or individual’s own resources and strengths as a foundation for addressing challenges.”

The five protective factors include: Parental Resilience, Positive Social Connections, Concrete Support in Times of Need, Knowledge of Parenting & Child Development, and Social & Emotional Competence of Children. As the Center for the Study of Social Policy states, “Families thrive when protective factors are robust in their lives and communities.”

Positive Social Connections

Of the five Protective Factors, there is one that provides the foundation for the others to be built upon. Social Connections, specifically Positive Social Connections, are the antidote to social isolation. According to Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology – Brigham Young University, “…greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death.” Dr. Holt-Lunstad goes on to explain that social isolation equaled or exceeded other risk factors for mortality, including obesity.  In other words, we need positive social connections with other human beings in order to live and be healthy physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Knowing that positive social connections provide the antidote to social isolation, how do we foster this kind of culture within Safe Families for Children? What are some things that might be helpful as we move in this direction?

Confronting Shame & Vulnerability

First, one of the most common obstacles to fostering a culture of positive social connections that is sustainable long-term is shame. Dr. Brene Brown has done extensive research on shame, and she defines shame “…as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Shame is something ALL of us have to one degree or another. This means that we need to have an awareness of shame, not only as it concerns the families we serve, but also how shame affects our volunteers and ourselves. Consistently meeting with a professional counselor to process our thoughts and feelings about our work, others and ourselves is a healthy practice I recommend to anyone. After all, we can’t love our neighbors and foster positive social connections until we learn to first love ourselves, which leads to the antidote for shame—vulnerability.

Frank Laubach, a missionary who some call a modern-day mystic, says, “We really never do anybody much good unless we share the deepest experiences of our souls.” At the heart of sharing our struggles, pain and triumphs with one another is vulnerability. Being vulnerable with another person is the key that can unlock shame in them as well as ourselves. This is where the public narrative really can have a major impact, not just in connecting and recruiting volunteers, but it is just as important in sustaining long-term connection with parents we work with. When parents know we have had struggles, pain and triumphs too, we are no longer in a different reality than they are, but in solidarity with them in this present reality.

The Impact of Listening & Learning

I was at a marriage conference with my wife earlier this year, and I honestly thought it was going to be cheesy, but my wife insisted that we go. The presenters had all of the couples in the room turn and face their spouse while seated, and both my wife and I got five minutes each to talk about whatever we wanted while the other person simply repeated back in their own words what they thought was said, to help clarify and understand each other. My wife and I were almost in tears after this little exercise, because it dawned on me what we were doing—we were spending time together, we were fully present with one another and we both felt heard. While I’m not suggesting doing this specific practice with families and volunteers, I am suggesting that building a culture of positive social connections with families we serve takes our time, our presence and giving parents a voice to not just simply be heard, but also to speak into how we can make our local chapters better in serving families in our community. This includes having a parent representative in our planning committees and/or leadership team.

There are many other things we could say, but one final thing to consider in creating a culture of positive social connections is to find common ground. One of our Safe Families churches in our Char-Em chapter does a ministry called Games and Grub. They will go into low-income areas in the community and provide food and games for parents and children with no agenda other than to get to know them. The common ground is food, drink and games, ordinary things that can combat social isolation and foster a culture of positive social connections. This is just one example of how to foster positive social connections.

Putting It Into Action

As you brainstorm ways to better forge connections with the parents that you serve, consider this criteria for strengthening families set forth by the Center for the Study of Social Policy. The approach should:

  • Benefit ALL families
  • Build upon family strengths, buffer risk, and promote better outcomes
  • Be implemented through small but significant changes in everyday actions
  • Build upon or become part of existing programs, strategies, systems and community opportunities
  • Be grounded in knowledge of research, practice and implementation


By Clint Cleveland, M.A.
Clint serves as the Safe Families Coordinator through Bethany Christian Services in Northern Michigan. The Petoskey, MI chapter serves the Char-Em region.