Adolescents who help strangers experience higher self-esteem over time, according to new research from BYU family life professor Laura Padilla-Walker.
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescence, found that as adolescents exhibited prosocial behavior — helping, sharing and comforting — toward strangers, their self-esteem often increased over time.
However, no significant relationship was found between adolescents showing prosocial behavior towards friends and family and an increase in self-esteem over time.
Padilla-Walker said she is not entirely sure why adolescent service towards strangers increases self-esteem, while service towards friends and family does not. She said it may have something to do with how helping strangers is “more high cost.”
“When you help a friend or family member, that could just be part of the norm of that relationship,” Padilla-Walker said. “To help a stranger feels like going above and beyond and might take teens out of their comfort zone.”
According to Padilla-Walker, when adolescents realize they are helping another person who is less fortunate than they are, it can help increase feelings of self-confidence and further develop their identity as a service-oriented person.
Researchers surveyed 681 adolescents once a year over a five-year period. Participants were asked to rank the way they felt — strongly disagree to strongly agree — about statements such as, “I certainly feel useless at times,” and “on the whole, I am satisfied with myself.”
BYU student Kurt Schimmelbusch has experience working with adolescents as the program director of Brighter Horizons — a Y-Serve organization that helps provide service opportunities for and mentor at-risk teens.
“A lot of the teens we work with come from really bad homes or tough situations, where they may have been abused or mistreated,” Schimmelbusch said. “There are a variety of factors that may have caused them to suffer from eating disorders, anxiety, depression or even drug addiction.”
Brighter Horizons helps at-risk teens improve their lives through service activities. Schimmelbusch said he remembers one such activity in which the teens went to a care center for the elderly, and one of the girls said the service was the highlight of her week.
“I think for the girls, being able to serve makes them happier,” Schimmelbush said. “I don’t really know the psychology behind it, but I know it works, and I have seen it work in Brighter Horizons and in Y-Serve.”
Emily Anderson, a licensed clinical social worker and the first counselor in her ward’s Young Women’s organization, shares a similar view.
“Service definitely has a positive impact (on teenagers),” Anderson said. “I feel like serving others helps them to put themselves outside of themselves and distracts them from what’s going on with them.”
Anderson has participated in many service activities with the young women in her ward. One activity was “reverse trick-or-treating” where the young women knocked on people’s doors on Halloween and gave them a treat or asked if they needed help with anything.
“I noticed the girls would get more and more excited with each door they went to,” Anderson said.
Anderson works as a therapist for teenagers with depression, anxiety or other issues. She said she often talks to them about how focusing on the people around them can help them cope with their struggles.
“I tell them to do things like making some cookies and delivering it to someone, or writing a thank-you card,” Anderson said. “This helps them to get outside themselves.”
Padilla-Walker said communities can help adolescents improve their self-esteem by providing high-quality opportunities for them to serve others.
“This means opportunities where they can see the benefit of the good work they are doing,” she said. “This will help teens to feel better about themselves but will also help them to develop a pattern of helping behavior that can impact families and communities over time.”