When we say “I just want my child to be happy,” what we’re wishing for them is passion. We want them to live a life full of joy and meaning, to be motivated by what they love, and for their passion to be a touchstone that helps them get through life’s challenges.
Some parents tell us they’ve noticed their passionate children seem to lose some of that spark as teenagers. Others are concerned that their teens seem lost and unmotivated, or struggle with peer pressure. And even kids who find passion at an early age need help to stay balanced. These 4 tips look at passion from a teen’s point of view, so we can help them grow into thriving, happy adults.
SEEK CRYSTALLIZING EXPERIENCES
A crystallizing experience as a moment that leads us to say, “This is the real me, this is what I would like to do, to devote my life to,” according to psychologist Howard Gardner. Childhood and the teen years are often when lifelong passions are discovered. For example, musicians Yo-Yo Ma, Dolly Parton, and Thom Yorke have all described having crystallizing experiences during childhood. These moments are defined by awe and fascination: kids can’t tear themselves away from whatever it is that has captured their attention. Their passion becomes unstoppable. If your child has a crystallizing experience, you won’t have to pry them out of bed for music lessons or dance practice – they’ll never want to quit!
You can ensure that your kids have more opportunities to discover their passion. Give them lots of opportunities to explore the world. Notice what your child is inexplicably drawn to. (Maybe they’re the one always coming up with business ideas or convincing their siblings to learn every TikTok dance.) Take their passion seriously. Offer support, but let your child lead the exploration. Make sure you don’t pressure them to take on your passions; kids are often painfully aware of their parents’ preferences. And if your child does have a crystallizing experience, let them know how magical it is – then help them create positive boundaries around their passion so they don’t neglect other important things, like homework and staying healthy.
HELP THEM FIND THEIR “WHY”
In the viral 2009 TED Talk “Start with Why,” Simon Sinek says that passionate (and successful) people have one thing in common: they know their reason for doing what they do. Teens are neurologically wired to seek purpose, so this is the perfect time to talk to them about what motivates their choices – in other words, help them find their “why.”
Teens who seem unmotivated may be struggling to find this sense of purpose. Parents can help kids recognize if their motivation comes from inside (they find something satisfying; they’re doing it for themselves) or outside (they’re seeking external rewards or avoiding negative consequences). Everyone is motivated by a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, and developing this self-awareness at an earlier age can help kids recognize if they’re feeling pressured, pressuring themselves, or choosing something because it feels right. The more they notice when their choices light them up inside, the more likely they are to find what they’re passionate about and stick with it.
Teens are doing the hard job of crafting their own unique identities. It’s a creative process, and, like all creative work, it can be messy. Teens experiment by “trying on” identities, activities, and groups until they figure out what fits. They may proclaim that they’re passionate about something today and hate it tomorrow. They may suddenly drop an activity they’ve been happily pursuing for years, or insist that they must have a ukulele that you find two weeks later under a pile of laundry. We’ve all been there – but it’s still a rollercoaster for parents.
If your child is in the exploration phase, take heart and take things one day at a time. Remember that new experiences are how kids gather information about themselves and the world. By trying out different things, they’re more likely to develop genuine, lasting passions. And when parents acknowledge exploration as part of the adventure of growing up, kids will feel safe expressing themselves however they are, and whoever they are, knowing that they’re not locking themselves in.
PURSUE YOUR OWN PASSIONS
You want passion for your kids, but are you walking the talk? Perhaps the single most important thing parents can do to encourage passion in their teens is to make their own passions a priority, too. When parents make time for what they love, they send a message to their kids that living with joy and meaning is valued. Think about your own teen years – did you see adults doing what they loved, just for the sake of it? Or was it all work, work, work? We get it – you’re juggling a lot. There’s no time. Maybe all your energy goes to supporting your kids’ extracurricular activities and just managing life. But know that giving yourself even a little more room for curiosity, play, and delight will exponentially benefit your teens by giving them permission to seek passion, too. The happiest families are those in which passion is a shared experience.