Helping Strangers Builds Confidence in Teens


By Ralph Birch

A recent study has found that adolescents who practiced prosocial behavior toward strangers had higher self-esteem a year later.

The study was spearheaded by Laura Padilla-Walker, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Padilla-Walker and former student Xinyuan Fu coauthored the study, which was published late last year in the Journal of Adolescence.

Being Prosocial

Prosocial behavior toward strangers — such as helping, sharing and comforting — bolstered the self-esteem of teens who participated in the study. Teens who exhibited these behaviors exclusively to friends and family members did not have higher self-esteem.

"This study helps us to understand that young people who help those with whom they do not have a relationship report feeling better about themselves over time," Padilla-Walker said.

Padilla-Walker has conducted several studies relating to prosocial behavior throughout her career. While she’s found that teens who display these positive behaviors tend to stay out of trouble and have stronger relationships with family members, this was the first time she tied prosocial behavior to self-esteem.

By the Numbers

The most recent study examined the behavior of 681 adolescents from ages 11 to 14 in two U.S. cities. The kids were tracked at four different points in time, from 2008 through 2011. Participants responded to 10 statements such as "I feel useless at times" or "I am satisfied with myself" to gauge self-esteem. Prosocial behavior was measured by self-reporting that examined various aspects of kindness and generosity, such as "I help people I don't know, even if it's not easy for me" or "I go out of my way to cheer up my friends" or "I really enjoy doing small favors for my family."

The Results

"A unique feature of this study is that it explores helping behaviors toward multiple different targets," Padilla-Walker said. "Not all helping is created equal, and we're finding that prosocial behavior toward strangers is protective in a variety of ways that is unique from other types of helping."

For many adolescents, this time can be confusing. In a state of such self-exploration and self-identification, Padilla-Walker suggests that helping your kids find confidence, self-respect and self-worth can be of monumental importance.

"For teens who sometimes have a tendency to focus on themselves, parents can help by providing opportunities for their children to help and serve others who are less fortunate," Padilla-Walker said. "It is best if teens can directly see the benefit of their help on others.”

Discussion Questions

  • What types of things do you think would be considered prosocial behaviors?
  • Does performing prosocial acts toward family, friends or strangers make you feel better about yourself?


  • Prosocial
  • Self-esteem