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Teens bolster their futures by helping strangers, study says

Katie Boonkrataung, 18, likes working with refugees. Her parents originally came to America from Thailand in the 1980s. And though they were not refugees, she thinks that meeting, serving and learning about those who come from other cultures helps her identify with how her parents felt when they arrived in America.

But more than that, the Layton, Utah, teen simply likes to help others and says it helps her, too, whether she's volunteering with a school club or through Youthlinc, a service organization with which she'll participate in her second international humanitarian trip this summer.

"I love working with people, whether tutoring them, doing activities with them, being able to meet them and have a conversation," she said. "The benefits to them, I guess, is a lot of them don't have companionship and a connection with people. I feel I get so much more from it, learning where people come from, their cultures, the workings of the world."

New research from Brigham Young University published in the journal Child Development says that Boonkrataung benefits more than she may realize when she assists others. The researchers found that teenagers who help others, especially strangers, reap long-term benefits that include less likelihood they'll be involved in delinquent or aggressive behaviors three years later.

The study focused on links over time between pro-social and problem behaviors and how one may head off the other. According to lead researcher Laura Padilla-Walker, an associate professor in BYU's School of Family Life, pro-social behaviors like sharing, caring and volunteering, done willingly with the intent of helping others, provides protection against getting involved in negative behaviors, depression and anxiety.

Long-term study

The findings are based on a longitudinal research project now in its ninth year. The researchers interviewed 500 different families with teenagers in the Seattle area and have continued to follow them, asking about parenting, children's behavior and more. The questions on teens and service went from the general to the more specific, Padilla-Walker said.

It turns out that who they were helping made a difference in the impact of their service. Helping strangers provides the most direct protections against future aggression and delinquency, compared to others they could help. The results were also better when the adolescents see the benefit their assistance provides.

Finally, there's a qualitative difference in how one helps someone else, Padilla-Walker noted. Opening the door for someone is nice, but it doesn't provide the same benefit as devoting significant time or resources to helping. "It's harder to help people you don't know," she said. "That's considered high cost."

Padilla-Walker told the Deseret News that the value of helping family is sometimes "underplayed." The primary role of helping family members is it helps in having better relationships and in particular generates maternal warmth. That's more protective against future problem behaviors than social behavior. "It's important to foster those relationships," she said.

Raising helpful kids

Alisa Allred Mercer was a teen who volunteered when she was growing up in Los Angeles, during a period of riots. That service "influenced the outcome of my life, in terms of feeling empowered to make a difference," she said. Among other things, she collected canned goods for the needy.

She later served a church mission in the Dominican Republic, working in welfare and literacy. Now she volunteers at a food pantry and hopes to raise children who will always be willing to see what other people need and help them out.

She sometimes takes her children, a pair of 7-year-olds and a 4-year-old, to the food pantry or to where she teaches English as a second language. And she watched with pride as her daughter, 7, who had read about buddy benches, wrote to her school about the need for one. Buddy benches provide a place where a kid who is lonely can go and where other kids show up to be a buddy.

Padilla-Walker said that family participation makes a difference and parents should lead by example, demonstrating that they value serving others, as well.

She recommends parents and teens should find service activities that are meaningful to them. A teen who loves books might volunteer at a local library. But there are options with different values to the teen: Sorting books is not high cost or high effort. Reading to children will be more helpful and will create more emotional energy, she said. It has more long-term impact.

The other authors of the study are Gustavo Carlo of the University of Missouri and Matthew G. Nielson, also of Brigham Young University.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco