Get with the Program! Encouraging Teens to Get Involved in Community Service

Let's face it! Teens are egocentric. Getting your teen to think beyond his own immediate needs can be more difficult than cracking a nut with a plastic fork. Don't fret. It's not impossible. There are many ways to encourage your teen to care about those outside his immediate circle of friends. As he begins to feel empathy for others, he will realize he feels even better about himself.

Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and President/Clinical Director of Westchester Group Works, a center for group therapy in White Plains, NY, explains, "Teens are thinking about careers, college, and what their future might look like. This is very challenging and just one of the reasons why they are so focused on their own world." However, once teens are involved in community service, they begin to look beyond their personal needs. They also learn first-hand about the challenges others face, and they experience a sense of empowerment as they realize they can make a real difference in the lives of others.

Not sure how to tempt her off the cell phone and into a community project? Teens buy into community service when the project or program revolves around something they are already interested in. Maidenberg states, "Finding something in an area of interest for them keeps them motivated and inspired." For instance, if she has plans to become a veterinarian, she might try volunteering at an animal hospital. If she is interested in going to culinary school, she might volunteer in a soup kitchen or bake for a project that supports families in need over the holidays. My son began helping out with the sound system at our church to fulfill community service hours for Confirmation. Since he is a tuba player and very interested in sound, he found that he loved helping out and has continued volunteering even though his required hours are complete. If your teen does find a volunteer project in her area of interest, she is not only helping others, but building her knowledge base as well.

Parents can do their part by practicing what they preach. Parents who are involved in community service themselves serve as good role models for their teens. Teens should be learning directly from their parents that personal gratification is not all that matters. You might want to find a project that the whole family can do together. It's refreshing to spend quality time as a family while helping others. Maidenberg suggests that you show a movie about the cause. "It is very important to induce empathy in them," she explains.

Let your teen know the benefits he'll reap. Maidenberg advises, "Give them every reason in the world to volunteer." She says that working on community service projects builds confidence. "By working with others, teens improve managerial, interpersonal, and communication skills. Community service helps to instill a maturity when they take a step back to see the needs of other people," she adds. Another perk: Service hours look great on a resume!

It's thrilling to watch your teen develop into a caring and productive member of society, so don't waste any time encouraging him to get started. Still not sure where to begin?

Most communities offer volunteer opportunities for teens at:

  • Animal shelters
  • Senior residences
  • Preschools
  • Homeless shelters
  • Hospitals

Worthwhile Programs:

  • Coats for Kids Foundation - new coats for disadvantaged or at-risk kids
  • Habitat for Humanity - building affordable homes for the less fortunate
  • Locks of Love - hair donations to make hairpieces for children with cancer
  • Operation Gratitude - sending care packages to our military men and women

TIPS AND TALES

  • "Teens do their best service when they are doing something they already enjoy. Sharing their hobbies and talents give them a sense of pride and accomplishment. Many service oriented activities my kids have done began with an interest of their own. Teens can actually enjoy giving back if they realize that things they take for granted are special in the eyes of others."
    Stephanie Pikora - Cary, NC
  • "It's always a nice bonding thing for teens to work together on a project for someone, such as painting someone's house or apartment who can't afford it. See if the local Walmart or Lowe's will donate goods to the cause such as drop cloths, brushes, and low cost paint. The teens like doing this because they feel like a big deal."
    Tracy MacQueen - Queens, NY