Guiding Teens Towards Finding Purpose in Life
While working as a high school guidance counselor, I heard the statement “I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” again and again from teens. I would listen to students tell me about pressure they felt to establish their life’s purpose and begin working towards it. A life purpose can be thought of as the motivating aim of life, the reason to wake up in the morning. It can be linked to career, responsibilities, friends or family, spirituality and religious beliefs, or all of the above.
Expecting teens to know their life’s purpose is both overwhelming and unrealistic. Teens often feel pressured to set goals and choose the next steps in their education or career, all before graduating from high school. Additionally, teens face a changing job market, increased academic expectations, and pressure intensified by social media. As caring adults, we need to support and guide our teens as they attempt to answer these difficult questions about next steps.
Get Onto the Path
We can help our teens begin their path to find purpose by building up key qualities in them. William Damon, author of “Path to Purpose,” and Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, stresses the importance of teens possessing optimism and confidence towards finding purpose. His research shows teens with high levels of gratitude, compassion, and tenacity tend to develop purpose. These important qualities can help teens find and maintain long-term, life-fulfilling goals.
Seven Tips to Start (and Continue) the Conversation
We need to guide our teens towards finding enduring, life-fulfilling goals. Parents are not responsible for identifying their teens’ purpose — this is the teens’ “work.” But parents can introduce options, provide support, help sort through choices, and model a life rooted in meaning and purpose. Helping teens navigate this journey is a long-term process. Consider these suggestions to get started.
1. Help Teens Understand How Much They Matter
From the time your child was born, you met their needs and celebrated their successes. You noticed what they did right and let them know how proud you were. As teens get older, we tend to take their successes for granted — we think they are just meeting our expectations. We spend less time praising them and letting them know how much they matter to us. People cannot have a sense of purpose until they know how much they matter. Our teens need to understand how much others care for them and how they can affect our world for the better. With the confidence that comes from knowing they matter, our teens can begin to imagine their purpose in life.
2. Celebrate Unevenness
People are uneven. Our teens will not succeed in everything. However, there are areas in which each person can uniquely make their mark. We can help our teens find the areas in which they excel. We should challenge our teens to pay attention to (and later reflect on) areas they are good at and enjoy doing. Discover what drives them to keep learning. From there, our teens can begin finding their purpose. If a teen loves drawing (or writing poetry, or reading, or cooking), and is challenged to improve, encourage that passion! The talent and interest could turn into next steps in education or career and lead to a life of purpose that is right for them.
3. Have Small, Frequent Conversations with Teens
Avoid loaded questions like, “What do you want to do with your life?.” Instead, begin conversations with small, non-intimidating questions like, “When was a time you helped someone else?” or “What do you think your best qualities are?.” This can help teens start thinking about their purpose. Sometimes, young people will have difficulty finding their strengths. Be your teens’ biggest supporter and help them see their own strengths. In truth, their strengths might be so second-nature to them that they don’t even recognize them as strengths. These discussions can generate momentum that can lead to answering the difficult and long-term question, “What is my purpose in life?”
4. Model a Life of Purpose, Joy, and Fulfillment
Allow teens to see you as an adult living a life full of purpose, joy, and fulfillment. How did you know you wanted to raise a family? At what point did you know you wanted to be a teacher, a firefighter, a __________? Be sure to explain meaningful experiences from your own life and how setbacks that seemed discouraging at the time actually led to satisfying new insight. For whatever life purpose you have, discuss how you knew it was your calling and how it contributes to your everyday life satisfaction. And if you regret not following your dreams, don’t shy away from relaying the lessons you learned to your teens. This may help them gain knowledge from your experience. Also, let them know that life offers many opportunities to shift direction, each leading to meaningful experiences.
5. Provide Opportunities for Exploration
Encourage teens to step outside their comfort zone and explore the world around them. Allow them to join an after-school club or activity, apply for a part-time job, or explore the local community with friends. Maybe they’ll want to sign up for camps or fundraise for a special opportunity, such as a study abroad program. We never know what experiences may stick. As teens try new things, point out the skills and strengths they are developing that may help them in the future.
Nurturing Teen Strengths
Taking time to nurture strengths allows teens to further discover what their unique contributions to society will be. Click through to review ways you can help young people become their best selves.
Have High Expectations
We must not let our teens feel like they are letting us down as they grow. Rolling our eyes or having low expectations can make them worry about growing up.
Model Overcoming Limitations
We are all uneven -- everyone excels at some things but not others. Show teens ways they can put in hard work and effort to help make up for shortcomings in some areas.
Try New Things
Encourage teens to try out a variety of activities to help them figure out what they’re good at, what they may have to work hard at, and where they may want to focus energies.
Cultivate Character Strengths
Nurture strengths of character including gratitude, compassion, optimism and confidence so young people will lead meaningful adult lives.
6. Encourage Volunteer Work
Encourage teens to do something meaningful to them. When teens experience personal satisfaction from doing something that makes a difference in the world around them, they develop their personal beliefs and values. This leads to healthy identity development and a sense of purpose. They also will earn others’ gratitude, and that is a powerful motivator to continue to do the right thing. Other people appreciating teens also reinforces that they are valuable contributors to our communities.
Consider resources such as https://www.dosomething.org/us that can connect teens to volunteer opportunities. Through example and education, teens can learn the importance of engaging with their communities, service, and giving back.
7. Be Patient!
Finding purpose in life is not a single event for teens, it is a process. Allow teens to go at their own pace. Be patient if they feel stuck. Remind them that life is an ongoing process of change. It is important for teens to take their time in finding their life purpose — it is okay to not have all the answers right away. We need to allow downtime for reflection and change. Show teens that you are there to support them no matter what. This will offer them the security that comes from unconditional love. This security is the launching pad towards the future.
This article was written by Shannon Traurig, a former graduate student at CPTC, with contributions from Expert Advisory Board member Dr. William Damon.