Tips for Helping Teens Find a Purpose in Life
Does it seem that your teen is unmotivated? Do you think they lack ambition? The stereotypes of teens would tell us this is typical for teenagers.
The images we see in the media of teens are that they are unmotivated, lack organization or focus, and perhaps are lazy. When we dig a little deeper into what's really going on, research tells us that, among other things, teens might not be lacking ambition, but purpose.
The role that a sense of purpose plays in all our lives is something that researchers are beginning to uncover. Even as adults we sometimes struggle with what our purpose in life is, but this is perhaps an even more pressing issue among teens.
Helping teens find their purpose can be a crucial part of keeping them motivated and diligent in their activities.
What is Purpose?
At some point in our lives, most of us struggle with understanding the purpose of our life. It's one of those classic philosophical questions that come up for many people. From a research perspective, there are certain ideas that encompass the concept of purpose.
These are helpful to consider when exploring the concept of purpose with our teens. Understanding that “purpose” is not simply an activity that teens find enjoyable but also includes these other components can be eye-opening.
Finding purpose is one of those key endeavors that we as parents cannot do for our teens. They must find their purpose and discover the goals and aspects of life that are meaningful to them.
This is one aspect of life that is unique to each person. In our role as parents, however, we can help teens find their purpose through our support and guidance.
Why is it Important for Teens to Find a Purpose?
Researchers who study adolescents and the role that purpose plays in their lives tell us that it's a crucial component of well-being. Teens who have a sense of purpose tend to have better psychological well-being.
Studies show that teens with purpose have overall greater happiness, life satisfaction, better coping skills, and are more resilient in the face of challenges. In our efforts to help teens find their purpose, we are not just helping motivate them, but also maintaining their mental health and safeguarding their well-being.
Researchers also have pointed out that the adolescent years, in particular, are a crucial time in helping teens understand and find purpose. Although we hear a lot about teens’ hormones, it's not just hormones that are changing during this period of development. There are many changes in the brain and the body that are happening to teens during this time.
One aspect of development that is especially relevant to this topic is that during the teen years, adolescents are especially sensitive to stress.
Researchers are beginning to understand how adolescent brain changes increase their susceptibility to stress. This means that even mild stress may prompt larger problems like burnout for teens.
One of these changes that stress can prompt is a decline in the hormone dopamine. Dopamine is one of the “feel good” neurotransmitters that are secreted in our brains when we participate in a rewarding activity.
When teens experience stress, their levels of dopamine tend to fall, which can easily cause a decline in motivation. This may help explain why teens have a reputation for being unmotivated.
Helping teens find purpose is one crucial way to combat this stress-dopamine combination that can be so problematic. Teens who have a sense of purpose tend to naturally be more motivated because the activities they are pursuing are meaningful to them and over which they have greater autonomy.
With all these changes in hormones and brain chemistry happening to them at once, teens need to find ways to cope with stress and stay focused. Finding their life purpose may help them focus and bring back the motivation they need.
How to Help Teens Find Themselves and Discover Their Passions
As adults, we understand that finding purpose in life may not be a simple, straightforward process. Be patient with teens as they walk this journey of discovering their purpose. As parents, we can serve as helpful guides along with the path.
1. Ask "Why" Questions
Psychologists suggest that helping our teens find purpose begins with asking “why” questions of them. These open-ended questions can help them explore their feelings and beliefs about different experiences, opening the door to them learning more deeply about themselves.
You might begin with simple “why” questions about the activities they enjoy: “Why do you enjoy soccer?” or “Why are video games so appealing?”
Beyond these simple questions, you can delve into deeper, more complex “why” questions with your teen.
Questions like, “Why is it good to be kind to others?” or “Why do laws exist?” might prompt more in-depth discussions and help teens discover more of their core beliefs.
2. Uncover Their Interests
As parents, most of us probably have a good sense of our children’s interests. Maybe they love baseball or video games or hanging out with friends. If we dig a little deeper beyond the surface-level interest, we might discover some insight into their passions and purpose.
For example, perhaps the teen who loves sports really enjoys challenges or thrives on physical activity. This could provide some insight into their purpose.
Perhaps the reason your teen loves hanging out with friends is that they thrive on social interaction and are a real “people person.” It might be helpful to discuss your observations with your teen.
Be a careful observer and pay attention to the activities that really “light up” your teen. What activities or hobbies seem to foster enthusiasm and energy in their lives?
3. Allow For Trying and Failing
Of course, we don’t like to see our teens not succeed at something they try. However, sometimes failure can teach us (and them) a great deal about their passions and interests.
If teens only ever do activities that they know they will succeed at, they never have the experience of learning from failure. The experience of failure can often teach us about our passions, our skills, and our values.
By allowing teens to take greater ownership over the endeavors and activities they’d like to try, we provide them with a pathway to discovering a sense of meaning for them, not just doing things to live up to the expectations of others.
4. Positive Role Models
Although our teens hopefully value our input and guidance, sometimes the voice of another caring adult can play a big role in helping them discover their purpose. Encourage your teen to form relationships with other adults who can serve as positive role models or mentors. Consider if there are other family members who have had different life experiences than your own from whom your teen could benefit from learning.
Sometimes teachers, coaches, group leaders, or religious leaders can offer teens new insight into other experiences that might help them discover a sense of purpose.
Habits to Help Teens Discover Themselves
In our busy world, teens’ lives are often consumed with expectations to be fulfilled and schoolwork to be completed. While most of us want to foster an ethic of hard work in our teens, it can also be helpful to find time to allow them to slow down and have time for reflection.
Allowing teens time for self-reflection and mindfulness can be a key component of helping them find their purpose.
1. Downtime For Reflection
Although some teens might not jump at the chance to sit down with their parents and discuss the purpose, most would probably like the opportunity for more downtime. Downtime without homework or chores to do can be helpful for teens in many ways.
In terms of discovering their purpose, downtime offers them the chance to reflect on their recent experiences and work through difficult emotions.
Although many teens may be drawn to technology (i.e., social media or video games) during downtime, scholars suggest that some downtime for teens is well-spent without technology.
Encourage your teen to ask questions of you or other trusted adults to get input about their skills and strengths. Sometimes receiving input from others can be a wonderful way to get insight into one’s purpose.
We can also use technology to support teens in finding purpose as well. Amazing resources can be found online to help teens explore other parts of the world, investigate causes they are passionate about, and learn from other teens.
Researchers have even begun to create online toolkits to help high school students and young adults explore concepts of purpose and meaning.
2. Transformative Experiences
Research finds that meaningful experiences often prompt the discovery of purpose. Some teens might discover their purpose by just having conversations or reflecting on it.
For others, however, trying new experiences and activities is what prompts them to discover their purpose.
When we think of “transformative experiences” we might only consider things like international travel or intense wilderness experiences. While these types of experiences can definitely be transformative for teens, simpler experiences can also make a big impact.
Based on your teen’s temperament and interests, support them in discovering what types of novel experiences they’d like to try. Volunteering at a local charity or working with a segment of the population that they may not have had experience with before (e.g., the elderly, veterans, or people with disabilities) might turn out to be transformative experiences for them.
It might sound like a lofty endeavor to help teens find their purpose. In reality, though, guiding teens to discover their purpose mostly involves careful observation of their interests and fostering opportunities for them to try new experiences.
Then, simply stand back and allow them the autonomy to try new things and discover themselves.
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