Not so long ago, researchers thought a sense of purpose was only important for adults. Now they agree that purpose is critical for teens, too. Recent studies show that teens with a sense of purpose benefit from better mental and physical health, a more positive self-image, and an easier transition to adulthood. 

“Purpose is not just the domain of older adults,” says Anthony L. Burrow of Cornell University. “Purpose is a developmental asset, and the earlier we start to cultivate it, the better off we are.” But while teens are developmentally wired to seek purpose, embracing a purpose-driven mindset takes tools and support. Here are our top five key concepts to help you instill a sense of purpose in your teen:

Burrow says purpose is better defined as a long-range intention rather than a goal that can be accomplished. “Wanting to be a father is a goal because it is achievable. But to be a great father is more of an intention than an achievement. On some days, one might come closer to the ideal than others, but it is never a completed task.” Teens who understand their purpose as a journey learn that lots of different paths can lead them there, and even mistakes and failures contribute valuable lessons. This outlook reminds teens that it’s not about what they accomplish; it’s about becoming the kind of person they want to be. Purpose is always a work in progress.

The teenage years are the perfect time to set out in search of purpose, says Project Wayfinder founder Patrick Cook-Deegan, because “the development of purpose is intricately woven with the development of identity. Thus embarking on a voyage of discovering one’s purpose is critical during the adolescent years.” But too much pressure to discover their purpose can backfire by making teens feel like they’re falling short. Parents can help teens see their adolescence as an adventure, with each new experience contributing to their understanding of what makes life most meaningful and who they are becoming along the way.

Researchers agree that a sense of purpose is most motivating when it includes being of service to others. \”People don\’t worry about the right things,\” says Stanford psychologist William Damon. \”The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it\’s meaninglessness.\” Teens can find meaning by getting involved in causes that matter to them, volunteering, joining clubs, sharing their creative gifts, and lending a hand at home or in the community. These acts serve as an antidote to stress and anxiety by teaching teens how to take action, solve problems, build empathy, and feel gratitude for their own abilities and circumstances. And teens who volunteer often discover lifelong passions that lead them to their purpose.

Teens benefit by being surrounded by purpose-driven adults. Parents, teachers, community leaders, and others with a strong sense of purpose model what a meaningful life looks like and show teens that there are lots of different ways to achieve and thrive. Parents can help by talking about personal values, making time for their own passions, and starting conversations about what makes life fulfilling and joyful. Talk to your teen about your own path to purpose, including mistakes you made and lessons you learned. And, if your teen has a particular passion, introduce them to adults who share it and can provide mentorship.

When teens talk about discovering purpose, some moments stand out. Patrick Cook-Deegan says purpose is often crystalized for young people when they’re traveling abroad, spending extended time in nature, getting involved in a social change project, or establishing a contemplative practice like mindfulness. Parents can ensure that their teens have diverse opportunities to explore and engage with the world, then help them reflect on what they’ve learned about themselves. As researcher Cortland Dahl says, living with purpose “is actually what happens in between these memorable moments. It happens in the countless small steps we take every day. As we see in the lives of the most inspiring figures of human history… every moment is an opportunity.”  

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