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  • Writer's pictureLiz Duerholt

5 Elements of Peer-to-Peer Community

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

Dr. Nick Barnes is a children's psychiatrist from London, and I encourage you to watch his video on the 5 core principles of peer-supported community.

Before I get into discussing the core elements though, I want to talk about the word peer. What does it mean? Why is it important to have peers?

In the context of creating a peer-to-peer community, peers are people who make us feel safe. Who we can be ourselves around. People who are invested in our healing and growth, who are willing to leave behind any power dynamics, hold us accountable from a place of compassion and not judgment, and people who can drop in and be human together.

What is a peer-to-peer community?

When I first started doing research for Redefin’d I wanted to connect with different groups of young people who were considered at-risk. I wanted to create a peer community, a safe place for an open and honest dialogue.

I wanted young people to open up and imagine what Redefin’d could be. What did they want to see change? What was working? What wasn’t working? What were their needs? Our gathering ended up around the dinner table, sharing lasagna, and this night was an opportunity to share stories and to listen. I remember that night when Ryan wrote on the board, "I feel like a commodity of the system."

Redefin'd is an attempt to restore humanity to systems. To replace professional relationships with humans willing to be humans together, because healing happens in genuine human relationships. Peer-to-peer models have the ability to create this environment.

"Healing and recovery are impossible—even with the best medications and therapy in the world—without lasting, caring connections to others.”

- Bruce D. Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook

Lastly, before I dive in, a shout out to my friend Mark Meinike at Operation Tango Romeo the Trauma Recovery Podcast for sending me this video.

The five core principles of an effective peer to peer model:

#1. Work where young people are at

Each of us is different. We have lived experiences that have shaped our perceptions of the world, and our ability to relate with others. Therefore, the process of gaining trust, and building relationships, will not be linear. We are required to be in discovery - each and every time. We need to understand someone else’s story.

Young and old, we need to be creative in our approach. The process here, if we need to name one, is to prioritize safety. That means going at the pace of the individual, meeting their needs and level of readiness to connect. Trust takes time. The effectiveness of this approach depends on the strength of our commitment to the needs of the individual.

#2 Involve the right people

Involving mentors can be powerful in this process, and the right people must be chosen intentionally and carefully.

Are mentors willing to walk alongside young people in their growth, offering support when asked, while being mindful not to jump in and give advice?

The mentor/mentee relationship isn’t about judging actions, offering up unsolicited advice, or needing to “teach young people a thing, or two.” It is about listening, and being a person who sees, hears, and values them for not only who they authentically are, but respecting where they are in the process.

I love that Dr. Barnes talks about peers and staff as mentors too. We are all part of creating and compassionately holding each other to account in this process.

The best mentors will be honest, and come from a place of kindness, not judgement. Dr. Barnes also highlights loyalty, reliability and empathy as other key mentor traits.

#3 Focus on Relationship

Young people have to feel safe to try.
Create space for relationships to happen. Young people need to feel safe to try, and most importantly feel safe and supported enough to fail.

The first line in this video on relationships is, “Focus on relationships and build trust to create space for change.”


Space for change happens when young people feel safe to express, to try and to mess up, and then try again. No one is going to open up and start to connect when they think they might be judged, or blamed. Or if they think someone is going to brush them off, or bombard them with all the things they should be doing differently.

Safe space empowers change!

#4. Encourage Young People’s Ownership,

Co-creation empowers and motivates young people to become agents of their own change. They set the values they want to live up to, determine the culture, and how they are going to hold themselves and their peers accountable.

Co-creation as an organizational value, also ensures that the staff, executive and board members, stays aligned and accountable to the needs, and priorities of the young people they serve.

At Redefin’d we have designed our co-creation, and participant engagement process using the Guiding Principles of Youth Engagement from the YEToolkit.

#5. Be Safe and have Boundaries

Boundaries are important to get right. It seems that often, boundaries are being confused with emotional disconnection. When we feel unsafe with someone, attacked, hurt or confused, we reach a breaking point and react by setting boundaries that feel more like fortified brick walls.

Learning to set healthy boundaries is not the same as emotionally distancing ourselves from connection with others. It is the opposite, and for many of us, it is a skill we will need to develop over time.

In a peer-to-peer community, we want to create a container for safe expression. Safe expression also means getting comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations, because sometimes what we need to share with each other is about how we feel unsafe, and what we need to change.

Creating this environment means selecting the right people, and training your mentors, volunteers and staff in the process of setting healthy boundaries. Everyone needs to feel safe and well supported. They too need to feel heard, and cannot be overburdened with emotion and responsibility. If the balance is right, they will feel safe and more emotionally available to deeply connect.

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They are compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”

- Brene Brown

Liz Duerholt

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