Last year, my teenage son was asked to volunteer at our local Red Cross by a senior at his high school who was in charge of recruiting a team to help out as an assignment for a class. He didn’t want to do it, but I told him it would be a great opportunity to give back.
After a few arguments, I dropped him off at the front door at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning when he would have rather been sleeping. With his hood pulled over his head and his shoulders slumped as he walked in, he was every bit the sulky teen.
He spent the day going door to door, helping families in need, installing and checking their fire alarms. When I picked him up at the end of the day, I was pleasantly surprised to see a very big smile on his face. Despite his sullen mood from the morning, he’d had a great time. Not only did he meet some new people, some of his friends had showed up to volunteer too, so he got to socialize while doing something good for the community too. Win-win.
Having teens today can mean you are constantly fighting with them to back off social media and connect with people in other ways. And while they are busy with sports and school activities, fitting in time to volunteer might seem like a tall order, but it’s an important thing to consider as they are going through so much personal and emotional change.
Teens’ self-esteem is tested almost daily as they navigate their way through friendships, relationships, and everyday stress of being a teen, but a study published in The Journal of Adolescence reported that volunteering boosts teens self-esteem and self-worth — important feelings at this stage in their life.
Lending a hand doesn’t have to take a lot of time, either. It can be something as small as donating to money to a Go Fund Me Page, or something as large as tutoring another student or visiting a nursing home once a week.
It is important to note that the study found teens who break out of their comfort zone, and help strangers rather than those they already know such as friends and family, got more out of the experience. So pushing your teens to do something that requires them to put themselves out there a bit more has huge benefits. Helping a stranger and visiting a place they aren’t familiar with can be intimidating and hard. But like anything that makes us a bit uncomfortable, once we look back and think about how we did it, despite it making us nervous or uneasy, it’s incredibly rewarding. It is then they believe in themselves a bit more and carry the experience into their every day life.
Since studies have shown depression is on the rise among the teen population, and volunteering can alleviate feelings of loneliness and depression, it sounds like the perfect thing for every teen to engage in — even if it’s only an occasional experience rather than a regular thing.
I forced my son to do something he really didn’t want to do that day, but since then, he and my daughter, have enthusiastically volunteered more often and are enjoying it.
Humans are social creatures who want to connect and help others. As our kids grow up, the world has a way of challenging this ideal. But volunteering is a great reminder the world is bigger than them and their problems. And even if it isn’t their first choice of what they’d like to be doing with their spare time, the mental health benefits speak for themselves — not to mention the joy and happiness it brings to those to benefit from their time.