Encourage Teens to Contribute: A Strategy for Stress Management
We want to nurture in our children a drive to contribute. To make a difference in others’ lives. Doing so ensures our future adults (teens!) are going to have the character strengths and citizenship values needed to become vital community members and leaders. Beyond that, when teens are raised to care about giving, they are also more likely to have fulfilling home lives. Encouraging our tweens and teens to give back also makes a difference in their ability to manage stress. The lessons learned will carry into their adult lives. (Yes, it’s good for you too!)
Why Contribution Matters
- Keeps things in perspective by helping us see more than our own challenges.
- Makes us know that we matter, and a sense of purpose can get us through anything.
- Helps us move forward in times of grief.
- Assures that others watch out for us.
- Makes us more likely to reach for help during times of greatest stress.
Keep Life in Perspective
When we encourage teens to contribute to an effort bigger than themselves, or to help someone else deal with problems, they gain perspective on their own challenges. Sometimes that perspective helps them realize that their own problems are not as large as they seemed. Other times, it offers an opportunity to learn problem-solving skills they may not have considered if they’d remained focused only on themselves. Serving others or attempting to repair the world in any small way, forces teens to put aside their own troubles. Sometimes that is precisely what is needed to gain needed perspective to find solutions to their own worries.
Know We Matter
A sense of meaning and purpose drives us to continue marching on, even when we grow weary. Being positively engaged with other people reinforces the sense that we can make a difference. Not everybody is best suited to give directly to other people. Perhaps your teen is better suited to work with animals, to beautify the community, or to protect the environment. There is no “right way” to serve. It is knowing that they are contributing that protects them. Knowing that they matter, matters.
Those who experience the personal rewards of service tend to feel better about themselves.
Perhaps it is because the gratitude they receive reminds them of their own value even when they are not feeling good about themselves. People who give to others gain power. We should help our teens recognize that everyone possess the ability to transform lives and make the world a better place. This knowledge can be life-altering.
Don’t think of the importance of instilling a sense of “mattering” in your teen as something that only prevents problems. If your tween or teen is going through challenging moments, use their ability to improve others’ lives as part of a strategy to help them restore faith in themselves. Giving to others can counter feelings of being unimportant or worthless. It has been shown to protect people from going down dangerous and unhealthy paths. People who volunteer are less likely to drink or do drugs as a means to feel better about themselves.
Some of the greatest stressors any of us will ever face in our lives are related to the grief felt after losing people we care deeply about. Many people have found that turning to activities that allow them to give something back can heal some of their own pain. On a national level, for example, mothers of victims of drunk drivers created Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). The teenaged counterpart is Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). These large organizations have transformed lives and prevented tragedies.
On an individual level, everyone can do something to serve others or repair the world in honor of the memory of those lost. We may even choose to give back in a way that they would have, and to do so in honor of their name. We can guide our teens towards considering this powerful strategy if they are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Watchful Eyes with High Expectations
There is another level in which youth benefit from giving back to others: they are seen through a positive lens. Too many young people are held to low expectations. They are met with an eye roll, or even seen as dangerous. Young people who contribute to others’ well-being will be surrounded by appreciation, rather than condemnation or low expectation. Youth benefit when they learn that people expect the best from them. They rise to the positive expectations. They will want to continue to earn gratitude. Each time they help another person, they earn an extra pair of watchful eyes.
Rising to positive expectations does more than lead teens towards success. It actually reduces the stressors in their lives, because some of their stress may be related to mistaken choices. Young people who are watched closely and expected to be good may be less likely to make undesirable – stress generating – choices in the first place.
The Ultimate Act of Resilience
The ultimate act of resilience is to turn to another person and ask for a hand. In times of greatest challenge, it quite literally can make the difference to survival. In times of lower stress, it might make the difference in whether someone retreats or flourishes. The question is, what makes somebody feel comfortable reaching out? Part of that answer rests in not believing they are pitied, seen as a burden, or looked down upon.
When one gives service, they learn firsthand how good it feels to give. They learn that those who give do so not out of obligation or pity, but because they gain something. Then, when they need help, they can take it without shame. Just as they have given, it is now their turn to receive.
Building a Better World
We’re not in this alone. Part of stress is related to the world that we live in. As we raise our teens to contribute to improving the world, we will build stronger communities. Stronger communities in which people care for and about each other prepares each of us to flourish … and lowers all of our stress.
Opportunities to Give Back are Everywhere
There are opportunities in every community to serve. Many opportunities to give back exist in daily life and are not connected to any formal program. There’s often no need to look further than our own neighborhoods to find a person in need of service or even just our presence.
Your teen’s school may also be a great place to start. We know that teens who tutor younger children raise their own grades. Young people who are engaged in improving the school environment, also do better in school. Opportunities abound through local religious institutions, animal shelters, food pantries, community improvement and environmental protection organizations. There are countless other informal and formal opportunities.
If your teen wants to investigate service options, these websites can help: