Guiding Teens to Find Their Moral Compass

This piece was co-authored by Joanna Lee Williams, PhD, Associate Professor, The University of Virginia Curry School of Education

Finding a Moral Compass

Adolescence is a time of tremendous change and growth. Teenagers are super-learners. Development is happening at a rapid pace. We see the physical changes and sense the emotional ones. We marvel at teens’ increasing ability to think things through and grasp the world’s complexity. Their sense of values and morality are also developing. Parents can support that development by allowing teens to clarify their own values while guiding them with core values important to their family.

Defining Values and Morality

Morality can be thought of as those guiding principles that steer us towards what’s right or wrong. That guide us to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. Values are everywhere and can be unique to each family. Honesty, fairness, integrity, kindness, tolerance, compassion, respect … these are just some of the values we impart to our children. Our values are evident in both our actions and inaction.

We learn about values and morality from many places and experiences including religion, society, government, cultural and ethnic traditions, and personal experiences. But most of all, we learn through our families and others critical in our upbringing.

Parents’ Role

Parents must provide boundaries beyond which young people cannot stray. Setting boundaries around issues of safety and morality allows young people to make their mistakes and learn how to recover. But how we set the boundaries around safety and morality is not the same. Safety is something that is absolute. We must assure our children are not in danger of being harmed. Morality, on the other hand, can’t be forced on someone. It is something we nurture as we guide our youth to consider what they value and the potential consequences of their behaviors.

These are not lessons that begin in the tween or teen years. We begin teaching values when they are toddlers learning to share. As they grow, we encourage them to understand how their actions affect others. We model behaviors we hope they’ll copy and expose them to people whose values we hope they’ll notice. Sometimes we let them witness the unpleasant realities in our communities to inspire them to want to repair the world.

We do all of this to help them become good people.

Morality can be thought of as those guiding principles that steer us towards what’s right or wrong.

Developing Morality in Teens

The teen years are a critical time to help them develop a solid sense of morality. The key word here is develop. We can’t impose our view of what morality is, as it will likely backfire. Teens tend to reject demands unless they are clearly linked to safety. By demanding teens follow certain views, you may turn something you really care about into a source of rebellion. When we tell young people what to do they may follow demands for the moment, but they may not own the lessons. Life’s lessons have real holding power when we take personal ownership over them. Remember though, young people value adults as guides and your children care about what is important to you and closely watch the behaviors you model.

Communicating Your Values

Of course it’s fine (even preferable) for your teens to know what values you hold dear. The key is to tell them the whys behind what you believe. As you do, make it a conversation, not a lecture that implies only your way of thinking is correct. Ask them how they see it. Learn what they care about. Help them think about how they’d like to be perceived in the long run.

Many of us make decisions based on how it will make us feel in the moment, or to gain instant recognition. But that kind of a recognition is temporary. When we imagine the future and consider how friends, colleagues, and family will ultimately see us, we make different decisions in the moment. Helping teens understand this will encourage them to solidify their core values.

Clarifying Their Values

Not all of your teens’ values will align precisely with yours. There’s a good chance that you think a bit differently than your own parents, even if you share similarities. Our children will best learn to navigate their own moral compasses when they know they are safe, but we allow them to clarify the things in life that really matter to them. They need to understand why you care so deeply about their developing moral values. Your goal is for them to be their very best selves and to be committed to caring for and about others.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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