How To Talk To Teens About Their Purpose In Life
“Not to brag, but I can make my teen crabby just by saying hello.”
As the parent of a pre-teen, I can relate. And judging from the sixty-three comments attached to this Facebook meme a friend posted, so too can a few other parents. Although stereotypes of rebellious, moody teens tend to be overdrawn, most would agree that it can be challenging to talk to teens, especially about the important stuff. Like their purpose in life.
What do your teens want out of life? What do they hope to accomplish? How do they want to leave their mark? Why?
Broaching these kinds of topics can be tricky. As parents, we want to be encouraging but not pushy, supportive but not manipulative. It can be difficult to walk this fine line. And yet, it’s important to have these kinds of conversations.
Amorphous, philosophical topics, like purpose, are not typically the focus of psychological study, but in the past decade and a half, research on this topic has exploded. From this work at least two clear findings have emerged. First, we’ve learned that leading a life of purpose is beneficial in more ways than one. Purpose is associated with physical health, including better sleep, less chronic pain, and longer living, and with psychological health, including hope, happiness, and life satisfaction. The second thing we’ve learned is that the experience is rare. Only about 1 in 5 high schoolers and 1 in 3 college-aged youth reports leading a life of purpose.
Taking these findings together – that leading a life of purpose is a beneficial but rare experience – members of my Adolescent Moral Development lab and I began to explore ways of fostering purpose among young people. In the process, we learned a lot about how young people identify meaningful, long-term goals that allow them to contribute to the broader world. Below I outline some strategies and conversation starters parents can use to start a discussion with their teens about their purpose in life.
Have you ever told your teen or twenty-something what gives your life purpose? Have you tried explaining how raising children fills your life with meaning, or how doing a job that positively influences the lives of others gives your life direction? Rarely do we share the things that give our own lives purpose, but doing so is critical. Not only does it help introduce adolescents to the language of purpose, but it can also help them begin to think about the things that give their own lives purpose.
Focus on young people’s strengths and values.
Help young people identify their strengths and consider the values that are most central to them. Purpose emerges when young people apply their strengths to affect personally meaningful changes in the broader world. For example, a young person who cares about the environment and is equally a good writer may find purpose in promoting conservation through journalism.
It may seem counter-intuitive to foster purpose by cultivating a grateful mindset, but it works. Helping young people reflect on the blessings and the people who have blessed them naturally inclines young people to consider how they want to give back. At dinner each night, ask each family member to share at least three things from their day for which they’re grateful. Or, use holidays as a way of starting an on-going conversation about gratitude.
Encourage youth to reach out to friends and family members.
Young people may not know what their purpose is, but the adults in their lives may have a pretty good idea. Encourage your teens to send emails to or strike up a conversation with at least five adults who know them well, asking: (1) What do you think I’m particularly good at? What are my greatest strengths? (2) What do you think I really enjoy doing? When do you think I’m most engaged? (3) How do you think I’ll leave my mark on the world? You can help by encouraging the recipients of these emails to respond. They don’t need to spend more than five minutes doing so; what you want is their gut reactions. The responses youth receive can be very eye-opening. They’re likely to learn quite a bit about their purpose when they hear what others think it might be.
Focus on the far-horizon.
All too often our conversations with adolescents focus on the here and now. Did you finish your homework? Which colleges are you applying to? Are you ready for your physics test? Instead, ask adolescents questions that focus on the bigger picture. Ask youth to imagine if things have gone as well as they could have hoped, and now they’re 40-years-of-age, what will they be doing? Who will be in their life? What will be important to them? Why? This long-term thinking helps youth focus on what it is they want out of life. And don’t forget the whys! Purposes often appear in the whys!
In addition to trying these empirically-based strategies for cultivating purpose in the lives of young people, encourage your high schooler to participate in The Purpose Challenge (purposechallenge.org), where they can complete a brief set of online tools designed to help them discover their purpose, write a short purpose-inspired college essay, and submit that essay for a chance to win a college scholarship. Entries for the college scholarship are due February 1st so check out the site and learn more soon!
Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk is an associate professor of psychology at the Claremont Graduate University in the Division of Behavioral & Social Sciences, where she studies the things that give young people’s lives purpose. Dr. Bronk teamed up with the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and social impact firm ProSocial to translate research on purpose into an online toolkit called The Purpose Challenge, which youth can use to explore their own purpose in life.