HDFS News Research

When it comes to positive youth development, it is possible to care too much

New research indicates there may be a point where youth can “care too much.”

John Geldhof, Ph.D.

New research indicates there may be a point where youth can “care too much” and caring becomes detrimental to their well-being.

“Caring on whole is good, but for some youth it is possible to care too much, which can lead to over-investment in others’ lives and problems,” says John Geldhof, an assistant professor in Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and the study’s lead author. “At that point, caring can lead to anxiety or other negative emotions.”

“You should be able to contribute but you can’t care so much that you’re martyring yourself.”

The findings were published recently in the Journal of Adolescence. Co-authors are Torill Larsen, Helga Urke and Ingrid Holsen of the University of Bergen in Norway and Hillary Lewis and Corine Tyler of OSU.

John’s research interests include the development of self-regulation across the lifespan and the link between self-regulation and positive developmental outcomes, particularly for positive youth development.

Under the “Five Cs Model” of positive youth development, youth who develop competence, confidence, character, caring and connection are viewed as more likely to thrive into adulthood.

“Generally if a person has all five Cs, the expected outcome is that they’ll be in a position to make a positive contribution in society,” John says. “Youth who develop all five Cs should experience lower rates of depression and anxiety and lower rates of substance abuse, and generally should have greater mental well-being.”

Using data from a Norwegian study of well-being among youth, the researchers analyzed the relationship between caring and outcome measures such as anxiety, depressive symptoms and mental well-being.

They found that caring as a developmental characteristic is multi-faceted and part of a larger and complex developmental system. The line between caring for others and caring too much can be a fine one, John says, and will likely vary from youth to youth.

“It really depends on an individual’s situation, their personal strengths and supports,” he says. “A four on the caring scale could be good, or it could be problematic. It’s really about how the caring manifests in the individual, how it affects them.”

For practitioners who work with youths, such as counselors, educators, or youth development program leaders, one of the key takeaways from the study is to ensure youth development programs are comprehensive and stress development of the whole youth, John says.

“It’s important to maintain a holistic view of youth development,” he says. “People are unique. Just acknowledging that each of these aspects of development is important.”

Additional research is needed to better understand if any of the other Five C characteristics can become detrimental if they become over-developed, John says.

“Balance is really important,” he says, “and balance means balance across the spectrum of the Five Cs.”