One may be surprised to learn that adolescents’ self esteem is enhanced by helping strangers. A study just published by School of Family Life professor Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker and her student Xinyuan Fu shows that teens with good self-esteem are more likely to help people they didn’t know, and teens who helped others were more likely to experience confidence boosts after that service. Padilla-Walker and Fu theorize, as a result of these findings, that the relation between self-esteem and prosocial behavior goes both ways.
The study will be published in the Journal of Adolescence in June. It looked at 681 adolescents of various races and from families of various income and education levels over four years. Interestingly, it found that no such bidirectional relation existed between self-esteem and prosocial behavior toward friends and family. It was only in serving others not of a teen’s acquaintance that a difference in self-esteem was noted. “[Our] findings..highlight the complexity of adolescent development of self-esteem and the multidimensional nature of pro-social behavior,” says Padilla-Walker.
While these results may or not be surprising, she notes that: “there is something unique about helping those that teens do not know that helps them to feel better about themselves, but helping family and friends does not facilitate this same outcome. It suggests that if we feel a degree of competence, we are more likely to go outside of our comfort zone and help those with whom we don’t have a relationship. I hope that parents and educators will implement helping and service into intervention and prevention programs with the understanding that helping others can boost self-esteem during the teen years.”
Why are Self-Esteem and Service Important?
Why are these results important? Research shows that low self-esteem tends to cause teens to opt out of things like trying out for teams, at best, and increase the likelihood of doing drugs and binge drinking, at worst. The beauty product company Dove recently released a report in the Huffington Post showing that “…low body-esteem is causing the majority of women (85%) and girls (79%) to opt out of important life activities—such as trying out for a team or club, and engaging with family or loved ones—when they don’t feel good about the way they look. Additionally, seven in 10 girls with low body-esteem say they won’t be assertive in their opinion or stick to their decision if they aren’t happy with the way they look, while nine out of 10 (87%) women will stop themselves from eating or will otherwise put their health at risk.”
A 2014 study from JAMA Pediatrics revealed that boys were also concerned with physical appearance and that those who were were more likely to do drugs and binge drink. Clearly, self esteem is of paramount importance.
What to do, then?
With this being said, how can parents and educators of teens help improve those teens’ self-esteem through service to strangers?
- Let them provide a ride. If there’s someone in your neighborhood or community who has a disabled child, and your teenage son or daughter has their license, encourage them to offer a ride to the child to an activity.
- Leave a quarter where someone can find it, then watch from a hidden spot.
- Give them ideas of things to say—and not say—to someone who appears to be suffering mentally or emotionally. Our Comprehensive Clinic provides some good suggestions here.
Dr. Padilla-Walker plans to further her research in a number of ways: “This summer we’re looking at different types of helping, including defending, supporting, inclusion, physical helping, and sharing. We also are looking at how prosocial behaviors differ across the entire span of adolescence, as we have rich longitudinal data spanning ten years! It will be exciting to see what happens developmentally and how family and other influences impact changes over time.”
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