Vol­un­teer­ing eases stress of tran­si­tion

Northern News (Kirkland Lake) - - OPINION - CRAIG and MARC KIELBURGER

Across the coun­try, stu­dents are start­ing high school and fac­ing life’s big­gest ques­tions: Where’s my locker? Do I know any­one in home­room? What is that grey stuff on my cafe­te­ria tray? And they’re get­ting very stressed out. With un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ments, heav­ier work­loads, and so­cial chal­lenges, the tran­si­tion from ele­men­tary school to high school is rough. When 800 new high school­ers rated their feel­ings of anx­i­ety on a scale of one to 10, one-quar­ter said seven or more — in­di­cat­ing se­ri­ous stress.

Dis­turbingly, these anx­i­ety-rid­den youth were the most likely to cut classes, start smok­ing, or even en­gage in self harm, ac­cord­ing to McGill Uni­ver­sity re­searcher Nancy Heath, who stud­ied the stu­dents for three years.

For­get fid­get spin­ners—there’s a bet­ter cure for high school worry: vol­un­teer­ing.

Par­ents are al­ready struggling with over­sched­uled kids, but the men­tal health ben­e­fits of this par­tic­u­lar af­ter-school ac­tiv­ity are well es­tab­lished, and worth the ef­fort.

“There’s clear ev­i­dence that do­ing some­thing for oth­ers can help peo­ple man­age stress,” says Heath.

The big­gest ben­e­fit is con­nect­ing with new peo­ple. High school is a so­cial mine­field. In Grade 9, ele­men­tary school cliques break up. Teens struggling to find new friends can feel iso­lated and re­jected.

They need a backup so­cial scene out­side the class­room, Heath sug­gests. “Vol­un­teer­ing and get­ting in­volved gives a sense of com­mu­nity and be­long­ing.”

Team sports and some hob­bies are so­cial, but they can’t match the other ben­e­fits of vol­un­teer­ing.

Young vol­un­teers con­nect with like-minded men­tors, who are role mod­els for more than just a skill, but for al­tru­is­tic be­hav­iour.

Serv­ing food in a soup kitchen or chat­ting with folks in a se­niors’ home forces a teen to fo­cus on the needs of oth­ers, in­stead of fret­ting over their own wor­ries. It broad­ens their out­look be­yond them­selves, and pro­motes feel­ings of grat­i­tude — which sci­ence has shown is good for your health.

Vol­un­teer­ing can help stu­dents un­wind as they fo­cus on the im­me­di­ate needs of oth­ers, in­stead of their own anx­i­eties, help­ing them build both per­spec­tive and em­pa­thy, a trait that doc­tors say is a pow­er­ful de-stresser.

Con­fi­dence takes a real beat­ing in Grade 9, as youth find them­selves back at the bot­tom of the so­cial lad­der. Good self-es­teem is the best de­fence for sur­viv­ing the tran­si­tion, says Greg Lu­bimiv, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Phoenix Cen­tre, a youth coun­selling agency in Ren­frew County, Ont.

We’ve found that, among youth who vol­un­teer through our ser­vice pro­grams, 61 per cent report feel­ing in­creased self-es­teem. They’re 1.3 times more likely to have a strong sense of self than their peers, and are more com­fort­able adapt­ing to change, ac­cord­ing to an in­de­pen­dent study by re­search firm Mis­sion Mea­sure­ment.

Stress doesn’t have to be en­tirely bad, Heath notes. It can be an op­por­tu­nity to over­come chal­lenges which builds re­siliency. Vol­un­teer­ing helps teens cope, build lead­er­ship skills and, of course, start a life­long habit of giv­ing back.

This fall, en­cour­age the new high school stu­dent in your house to find a cause they’re pas­sion­ate about and get in­volved. It won’t help them find their locker, but it will ease the stress. Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co­founders of the WE move­ment, which in­cludes WE Char­ity, ME to WE So­cial En­ter­prise and WE Day. For more dis­patches from WE, check out WE Sto­ries.

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