PhotoA new study suggests that teens who carve out time to help others may develop higher levels of self-esteem.

Researchers from Brigham Young University (BYU) say that’s because selfless and serving behaviors are particularly valuable to young people who are working on establishing their identities.

In an interview with ConsumerAffairs, study author and professor Laura Padilla-Walker explained that prosocial behavior (such as helping, sharing, and comforting) helps adolescents build self-esteem -- but only when exhibited toward strangers.

Building moral identity

The researchers found that helping others was associated with higher levels of self-esteem that lasted even a year later.. However, the same effect was not seen when teens solely helped friends and family members.

“This suggests that helping others they do not know might help teens to feel more confident in who they are and what they are capable of,” Padilla-Walker said. “Being of help to others can help a young person who feels insignificant with peers, for example, to recognize that they have something to contribute.”

Padilla-Walker says that if helping strangers becomes a regular part of teens’ behavior, it’s more likely to “solidify as part of their moral identity and then be associated with lifelong service.”

“Also, teenagers are sometimes accused of being egocentric or self-centered. Helping those less fortunate helps to combat the tendency toward self-centeredness in all of us.”

High quality helping

Padilla-Walker says that past studies have also found that helping strangers protects teenagers from risky behaviors like drinking and drug use. The key to reaping these benefits in teens, she says, is to participate in high-quality helping.

“Just shelving books at the library might not be as meaningful as working in a soup kitchen where they can see the benefit of their helping,” she said. “That being said, there are ways to help that suit all personality types and that would likely result in similar benefits.”

Websites like have ideas for how teens or families can get involved in community service in their area during the holiday season and throughout the year.

The full study has been published online in the Journal of Adolescence.

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