If you want to help your teenager create a positive self-image, perhaps encourage them to be good to strangers, researchers say.
Generosity is not just a desirable trait; research has recently shown that selfless acts improve our psychological well-being and our overall quality of life.
The positive effect is particularly strong when it comes to teenagers, so this holiday season, we should encourage our younger relatives to focus more on giving to others.
If adolescents show kindness to people with whom they don't already have a relationship, even better, say the new study's findings, which hail from Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.
Study co-author Laura Padilla-Walker, a professor at the university's School of Family Life, says that teenagers who act generously toward strangers have higher self-esteem, and she says that this effect is consistent in the long-term.
"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," she explains.
"Given the importance of self-esteem during the teen years, this is an important finding," she adds. "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."
The results of the study were published in the Journal of Adolescence.
'Not all helping is created equal'
Prof. Padilla-Walker and her colleagues have previously conducted other studies on the impact of prosocial behavior — which refers to altruistic and supportive acts — on the lives of teenagers in the long-term.
Former research has shown, for instance, that selfless adolescents are typically less aggressive and do not engage in delinquent behavior. However, this is the first time that Prof. Padilla-Walker has investigated the link between generosity and self-esteem in teenagers.
The team worked with 681 adolescents aged 11–14, recruited from two cities in the United States. They were followed-up for four different time periods between 2008 and 2011 and were asked to evaluate themselves using a set of 10 statements, including, "I feel useless at times" and "I am satisfied with myself."
These statements were used to assess the participants' levels of self-esteem for the duration of the study.
In addition to the self-esteem evaluation points, the teenagers also had to reflect on their prosocial behavior, choosing from affirmations such as, "I help people I don't know, even if it's not easy for me," "I go out of my way to cheer up my friends," and "I really enjoy doing small favors for my family."
It was discovered that the teenagers who identified as acting generously toward strangers had higher self-esteem than their less altruistic peers, and this effect was valid for up to a year from when they engaged in the altruistic behavior. Moreover, the results were consistent across age groups.
Interestingly, helpful and generous behavior shown toward friends and family did not have the same marked effect on the adolescents' self-esteem.
"A unique feature of this study," explains Prof. Padilla-Walker, "is that it explores helping behaviors toward multiple different targets. Not all helping is created equal, and we're finding that prosocial behavior toward strangers is protective in a variety of ways that is unique from other types of helping."
"Another important finding," she notes, "is that the link between prosocial behavior and self-esteem is over a 1-year time period and present across all three age lags in our study. Though not an overly large effect, this suggests a stable link between helping and feeling better about oneself across the early adolescent years."
Shift the focus to others' needs
Prof. Padilla-Walker also adds that, since adolescence can be challenging time and teenagers may be traversing a difficult emotional period, the adults in their lives should strive to foster the link between generous behavior and positive self-appraisal.
She suggests that parents and caretakers enable teenagers to do good deeds in the service of others. Focusing on someone else's needs and problems could be particularly beneficial for those who are too self-absorbed, or simply overwhelmed by the confusing transition from childhood to young adulthood.
"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," Prof. Padilla-Walker advises.
She adds, "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."
"It is also a way to help them meet new friends or spend time with family," Prof. Padilla-Walker goes on to say. "A family tradition of helping those who are less fortunate throughout the year or during the holidays is a great way to instill in children a desire to serve and a greater sense of self-worth."
So, why not try to boost the holiday cheer this year by volunteering at your local charity, or offering support to someone in need? Encourage others to do the same, too: everyone will only have to gain by it.