(Note: This is Part 2 of a 3-Part series on raising healthy teenagers)
Devoted parents spend a great deal of time, energy, and resources to ensure that their children have everything they need to succeed in life. We want the best for our kids, so in addition to meeting their basic needs, we provide opportunities for education as well as activities such as sports, music, dance, and so forth. Sometimes this enthusiasm to give children what they need (or want) can have an unfortunate side effect: parents may create a sense of entitlement and narcissism in their children. Teens are especially vulnerable to thinking that the world revolves around them. Fortunately, there is an effective antidote for this that helps create healthy kids: focusing on the needs of others through service.
Recent research by Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker published in the journal Child Development outlines the benefits teenagers experience when they help others. Studies indicate that “prosocial behavior” (i.e., action intended to help someone) is associated with higher levels of self-esteem, empathy, moral reasoning, and academic achievement. Serving others also provides a number of protective benefits for adolescents. Teens who provide service to others reduce their risk of being involved in harmful behaviors such as aggression, delinquency, substance use, and negative peer relationships.
In addition to highlighting the benefits of helping others, the study describes the effects of serving different groups of people. Researchers discovered that teens benefit most from serving strangers, or people they do not know. The authors say that this “high cost helping” brings the highest rewards. They found that providing service to family members also helped protect teenagers against problem behaviors. Interestingly, helping peers provided the least benefits for teens.
Giving service can be likened to taking vitamins. Vitamins increase health and protect against illness and other health problems. For teens, getting outside of themselves and focusing on the needs of others can increase emotional health and provide protection against potential problems.
Parents should encourage their children to get involved in service. There are plenty of opportunities: school clubs, church youth groups, and community service groups. For example, Henderson youth meet monthly as a part of a community service club named “Club HOPE” (Helping Other People Everywhere). They gather donations for a local domestic violence shelter called Safe Nest, and make blankets to send to victims of natural disasters worldwide. Maddie Barrie, a member of Club HOPE, commented about the rewards she feels when serving others: “Service helps you realize the blessings in your life and the gifts that you have been given to help those in need.” Another member, Nathan Gerrard, remarked, “I’m glad that I have the opportunity to serve. I feel like I gain more from the experience than the person that I’m serving.”
Parents, although good intentioned, may raise teenagers with a sense of self-importance that can lead to future problems in life. To help teenagers grow up to be responsible citizens and adults, parents should encourage them to serve others, particularly family and strangers, on a regular basis. By doing this, teens will learn life lessons that can lead to future success and happiness.
Dr. Stephen Fife is an Associate Professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at UNLV. Aaron Fife is a student at Coronado High School. E-mail Dr. Fife at firstname.lastname@example.org.