Which Role Models Will Benefit Your Teens Most?

Role Models Are All Around

Role models are people teens look up to, and who they want to be like. Teens may select role models because they have qualities or are successful in areas teens see as important. A teen might look up to a famous athlete because they want to become a professional ballplayer when they grow up. They may choose a famous movie star because they aspire to have a similar status and lifestyle. But fame and fortune are not the only reasons teens select role models! 

Teens also choose role models because of their character: how the person treats others and what the person says. For example, they might look up to a well-known activist because of how they help others and the environment. It may surprise you, but teens often choose someone they know personally as their role model with parents or other family members often coming in on top! (Yes! Teens identify their parents as role models even before teachers, friends, athletes, or musicians!) 

3 Ways Teens Benefit From Role Models 

Role models are important because teens look up to them for examples of how to act or to imagine goals to achieve. Positive role models offer many benefits to teens. Here are three ways teens role models affect teens’ lives. 

  1. Attitudes and Actions: Role models may influence teens’ perspectives (e.g., ways of thinking) and their actions. Just as they may influence teens to buy a particular product, they may also inspire teens to choose a specific career path
  2. Healthy Choices: Role models can benefit teens’ mental and physical health. Teens with role models are less likely to do drugs, smoke, or drink. They are also more likely to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly. Having a role model can even protect teens from negative influences. And teens with role models are less likely to damage property, trespass, steal, or become depressed or anxious. 
  3. Self-Image: It’s good news teens often point to their parents or other relatives as role models. The benefits of having a role model may be amplified when a teen knows them personally! Teens with a close connection to their role models earn higher grades and have higher self-esteem than those who look up to an athlete or celebrity.  

There is another way teens benefit from role models they know personally —  they become good people.  Through their actions, some role models encourage teens to be caring, helpful, or trustworthy. These are a particular type of role model called “Character Role Models.” Here’s more about them. 

It may surprise you, but teens often choose someone they know personally as their role model with parents or other family members often coming in on top.

A Different Type of Role Model: The Character Role Model

While teens may look up to some people because of their careers or success, they look up to character role models because of how they treat others. Character role models set examples of how to be a good person and ways to positively impact the world. They provide an important opportunity to shape teens’ actions and attitudes. Teens who interact personally with their character role models can learn positive character strengths from them. 

A study from Tufts University showed teens choose character role models because of how that person treats themselves and others. As with role models in general, teens most often chose their parents or other relatives to look up to for being good people. They described their role models as having qualities including, kindness, honesty, trustworthiness, and putting others before themselves.  

Knowing a character role model personally allows teens to learn from them directly. And teens who see their character role models acting kindly may, in turn, act kindly to others.  Teens are also most likely to choose their parents as character role models! But parents aren’t the only character role models out there. Teens also pointed to adult relatives like aunts, uncles, and grandparents, siblings and cousins, non-family adults (like teachers), and friends as their character role models. So, how can you be a good character role model?

Be a Character Role Model  

There are several ways to help your teen develop positive character strengths. 

  1. Model for them! Teens learn by observing others’ actions and modeling themselves after what they’ve seen. Lead by example!
  2. Have conversations with your teen about what it means to be a good person. During these talks, encourage your teen to think about how they would want to be treated in certain situations or what they would do. Discuss how characters from your teens’ books or favorite television shows act. Have these conversations at different times, whether during meals, in the car, or while waiting in line.  
  3. Praise or thank your teen when you see or hear about them doing the right thing. You may also consider rewarding your teen for doing the right thing by offering them extra privileges (like more time to watch TV) or making their favorite dinner.  

Parents and caregivers need to work to be the type of role model they would want for themselves. Take time to talk with and listen to your teen, especially when it’s about doing the right thing. Even when it may not seem like it, there’s a good chance your teen is watching and learning from what you do and what you say.

About Ettya Fremont

Ettya Fremont, PhD, MPP, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is interested in positive youth development, specifically for youth with special health care needs, and adolescent moral development.

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