My Turn: Health Benefits of Volunteering for Kids and Teens
A breakdown from a pediatric psychologist at Nemours Children’s Health, Delaware Valley
Volunteering is a valuable experience that most people believe is beneficial for society. It’s never too early to encourage your children to start volunteering in an age-appropriate way, and there’s no better time than National Volunteer Week (April 16-22).
You don’t have to make a huge time commitment to set a regular practice of volunteering within your community. Preschoolers can pick up trash or help make sandwiches for a local shelter, while elementary school aged kids can work with animals, and there are a wide range of options available to teenagers and adults.
As with many other lifelong habits, volunteering is most often maintained through adulthood when we start early. For example, research has shown that adults who begin volunteering in adolescence are twice more likely to volunteer than those who did not volunteer when they were younger. If you have a teenager who hasn’t started volunteering, now is the perfect time to develop these habits for your family. Adolescence can also be an important time to start working within the community and to develop one’s sense of altruism—the concept that it’s important to do something for others without expecting something in return. That said, there can also be a variety of health benefits for those who volunteer at any age, so why not start early?
Health Benefits of Volunteering
Self-esteem, confidence and happiness
We all want our kids to feel good about themselves, and volunteering gives them something to feel good about. When kids volunteer, they learn new skills, can develop confidence in pushing themselves past their comfort zone and find success, resilience and independence. Even young kids can experience a sense of accomplishment from doing a task on their own. Volunteers of any age tend to feel happier as a result of volunteering, especially if they do so regularly, i.e., at least once a month.
Working together with peers can lead to making friendships, as kids find others who share their interests and values. In addition, volunteering provides opportunities for kids to interact with adults outside of school or family contexts and to develop positive role models and effective communication skills. Kids can also gain a sense of empathy and compassion for others, as well as gratitude when working with those who have different lived experiences and helping those who may be struggling.
Sense of community
Working with others in the community can also lead to a sense of purpose and belonging. In a world where so much often takes place online, especially in the context of social media and videogames for young people, engaging in face-to-face activities for the good of others around them can help kids feel connected to their communities in ways they have not experienced just by going to school or even by participating on a local sports team.
Leadership and planning skills
Volunteering can promote leadership and executive functioning skills as well. Executive functioning skills refer to higher level thinking abilities that develop more in older childhood and adolescence, such as planning tasks, self-monitoring of progress and time management. Working together with others towards a common goal can teach kids how to be flexible, how to compromise, how to be assertive and how to negotiate with others in a professional setting.
A sense of control
Volunteering can also be a way for young people to cope with challenges in the world. Events such as natural disasters and war can be very stressful, and kids (and adults) may feel helpless at times. Volunteering offers a way to respond to difficult situations by being helpful and productive and can provide a sense of control during uncontrollable events. For example, volunteering for a clothing drive following a flood can help kids process their feelings and make a difference.
Reduction of problematic and risky behavior
Volunteering is one way to help protect young people from making negative behavior choices. Research has suggested that in young people, volunteering reduces the risk of school truancy and drug abuse. And when kids are engaged in prosocial, organized activities, they may be less likely to find other, less positive ways to spend their time.
Overall, volunteering is a true “win-win” situation that benefits the community and those being served, as well as the volunteers themselves. There are countless opportunities for kids, teens and families to get involved in volunteer and service work, so if you haven’t already, consider cultivating these habits for you and your family.
Leah Orchinik, Ph.D. is a pediatric psychologist in the Division of Behavioral Health at Nemours Children’s Health, Delaware Valley.