The season of goodwill is upon us, and new research shows that for teenagers, helping others could improve their self-esteem during the sometimes difficult period of adolescence.
Carried out by researchers at Brigham Young University, United States, and Xinyuan Fu, Central University of Finance and Economics, China, the longitudinal study looked at 681 adolescents aged 11 to 14 years in two U.S. cities over a four-year time period.
The participants were asked to respond to 10 statements such as “I feel useless at times” or “I am satisfied with myself” to assess self-esteem, with the team measuring prosocial behavior and various aspects of kindness and generosity using statements such as “I help people I don’t know, even if it’s not easy for me” or “I go out of my way to cheer up my friends” or “I really enjoy doing small favors for my family.”
The team found that teenagers who exhibited prosocial behavior such as helping, sharing and comforting toward strangers, had higher self-esteem a year later.
However, the same was not true for those who exhibited prosocial behavior only to friends and family.
“This study helps us to understand that young people who help those with whom they do not have a relationship report feeling better about themselves over time,” commented professor Laura Padilla-Walker, one of the co-authors of the study. “Given the importance of self-esteem during the teen years, this is an important finding. It suggests there might be something about helping strangers that impacts one’s moral identity or perceptions of self in a more significant way than helping friends or family members, although these are beneficial behaviors as well.”
Padilla-Walker has worked on previous studies also looking at prosocial behavior, which found that teenagers who show these positive behaviors are less likely to be in trouble and have better relationships with their family.
However, this is the first time she has found an association between pro-social behavior and self-esteem.
Padilla-Walker now suggests that parents encouraging teens to help others could be a way of helping them boost their confidence, self-respect and self-worth during what can be a difficult period of self-exploration.
“For teens who sometimes have a tendency to focus on themselves, parents can help by providing opportunities for their children to help and serve others who are less fortunate,” Padilla-Walker said.
“It is best if teens can directly see the benefit of their help on others. This can increase gratitude in young people and help them to focus less on their own problems.”
The findings can be found published online in the Journal of Adolescence. JB