Jul 23 2019

Learning how to protect and care for others is a key development task of adulthood. Before too long [teenagers] may have children, they may be caring for disabled parents and siblings. And protecting and caring for other people is a really difficult thing.

Karin Frey

When a friend suffers some injustice, teenagers often feel a desire to act and help out. Those situations, particularly when they are challenging to navigate, give young people essential practice in how to care for others. 

In a new podcast, Professor Karin Frey, primary investigator for the Sociomoral Action and Identity Lab at the University of Washington College of Education, discusses her research on the subject, which she recently presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.

“Because teenagers by and large really want to help other people, they have a wonderful sense of social justice and they like to see things that are fair,” Frey said. “Now, when they do that, their actions are not always helpful [and] even when their actions are well-intentioned things don’t always turn out how they want them to.”

Frey noted there are four types of behavior commonly displayed by teenagers when a friend experiences bullying, discrimination or another threat: 1) calming their friend down, 2) amplifying their friend’s anger, 3) retaliating on behalf of their friend, and 4) mediating the issue with their friend’s adversary. Her team’s research indicates that how friends respond to an injustice is linked closely to their later emotions. 

“They report that after their friends have helped them calm down, have helped them try and reconcile, that they feel much lower levels of anxiety and depression,” Frey said. “When friends have amplified their anger, anger tends to be associated with sadness and anxiety. They also feel a lot of conflict if friends have taken revenge on their behalf … because that may not have been how they would have preferred to deal with the situation.”

Moreover, Frey said teenagers understand which actions taken on behalf of their friends and classmates are helpful. 

“They really feel proud, they feel like they’ve been good friends after they help classmates calm down or reconcile,” she said. “They feel ashamed, they feel guilty after they’ve amplified friends’ anger or helped them take revenge.” 

Educators can play an important role in helping teenagers talk about how to respond in situations where they want to help their friends and classmates, and to learn from those experiences.

“Learning how to protect and care for others is a key development task of adulthood,” Frey said. “Before too long they may have children, they may be caring for disabled parents and siblings. And protecting and caring for other people is a really difficult thing.”

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