Community service is a holiday tradition for many families. It’s a positive way to embrace the spirit of the season and support our communities.
But did you know when parents encourage their children to volunteer, it not only helps others but can also benefit their mental health and well-being in significant and enduring ways, especially during their adolescent and teenage years?
A teen’s well-being is inherently tied to social factors including connections with friends, school, family and the community around them. We know that new social challenges during adolescence can trigger feelings of loneliness, isolation, rejection, and low self-esteem while growing school, family and peer pressures cause many teens to experience increased stress and anxiety.
At the same time, a significant body of research concludes that pro-social behaviors and activities – helping others, community involvement and performing acts of kindness – are extremely effective in countering these negative emotions. Instead, they build important “psychosocial assets” that support good mental health.
One recent study investigating volunteerism as a potential treatment for teenage depression by researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine listed the benefits of volunteerism that are commonly identified in the literature. Being of service to others helps teens:
- Improve their mood – Simply put, helping others feels good. The body releases endorphins, hormones that create a sense of well-being, when you volunteer – a phenomenon that is sometimes called a “helper’s high.”
- Learn empathy – Volunteerism teaches teens to look outside of themselves and appreciate the struggles other people experience. By focusing on the needs of someone else, unhealthy or negative thoughts may not feel as all-consuming. This alters a young person’s perspective in a way that allows them to better cope with stress or other difficult feelings.
- Develop a sense of purpose – Adolescents and teens are searching for a sense of purpose. They become part of something greater than themselves by being involved in their community and helping others. Having a sense of purpose is tied to positive feelings like pride in what they are doing and knowing they matter.
- Build self-esteem – Helping others provides opportunities to develop skills and competency or take on a leadership role. Through pro-social activities, young people can achieve goals independently from their parents, feel accomplished and build confidence. Working with different types of people, in sometimes difficult circumstances, pushes them to step out of their comfort zone and take risks that they can feel proud of.
- Feel like they are making a difference – Adolescents and teens want to contribute to the world around them. When they help others, they feel like they have a meaningful role to play in their community. Their participation is creating positive change.
- Make social connections and build social skills – Volunteering involves opportunities to connect with others, something adolescents and teens crave. Making friends and having a social outlet through service, are key benefits to a young person’s well-being.
- Develop feelings of hopefulness and future orientation – Pro-social activities encourage hope, feelings of gratitude, and a more positive view of the future.
Over time, the research concludes, helping others can increase a young person’s coping abilities, reduce depression and stress, support happiness, improve academic performance and overall strengthen social connections. Pro-social activities are also protective. Studies show that teens who are active in their community are less likely to use drugs or alcohol, skip or drop out of school, participate in criminal activity or experience unintended pregnancies.
Certainly, helping others is something to be encouraged and supported by parents. But like many of us, teens often feel as if there aren’t enough hours in the day to take on a new responsibility like a lofty volunteer project. Start the conversation by mentioning volunteer opportunities that might align with your child’s interests. Remind them that there are many ways to contribute that aren’t necessarily time-consuming. Then, let them take the lead in deciding what and how much they want to do.