No one is more passionate and driven than teens who want to make a positive impact on the world. From Greta Thunberg to Jalen Arnold to Marley Dias and many, many more, teens are leading the way to a brighter future. But your teen doesn’t have to spearhead a major movement to make a meaningful contribution. Here are four ways you can help your teen fuel their motivation to make a difference:
1. Help them get out of their comfort zone.
Adolescence is supposed to be a time of exploration, according to Project Wayfinder founder Patrick Cook-Deegan. “Young people do not usually develop a specific purpose and then go become an expert in that thing,” Cook-Deegan says. “Rather, they are exposed to something new that helps them develop their own sense of purpose. In short, in most cases experiences lead to developing purpose, not the other way around.” That means the more new experiences your teen has, the better. Cook-Deegan suggests wilderness programs, travel abroad and service-learning experiences for teens, but even everyday adventures and challenges can spark a new perspective. Think about how you can make trying new things fun for the whole family and support your teen in going for big goals. Each exploration will teach them more about who they are and how they can contribute.
2. Support them in standing up for themselves.
Last year, eleven-year-old Riley realized that her female friends were getting written up for dress code violations way more often than boys, and that made her mad. She talked to her mom Laurel and a supportive teacher, and they came up with a plan for Riley and her friends to write their recommendations for a fairer dress code and present them to the principal. “They made the point that girls shouldn’t have to feel shame about their bodies and got some changes made to a long-outdated dress code,” Laurel says proudly. “Now Riley feels powerful; she knows her voice counts and if something doesn’t sit well with her, she can speak up to change it.” If something is bothering your teen, it’s likely impacting others, too. Instead of getting stuck in frustration, they can use their perspective to promote positive change for everyone involved.
3. Take action together.
We all want to protect kids from life’s harsh realities, but teens are well-aware of the challenges – from climate change to gun violence – affecting their generation. A more empowering approach is to talk openly with your teen about issues they feel anxious about and find a way to take action together. Ask your teen for their opinion on current events and follow up with thoughtful questions. Be careful not to impose your own views or minimize theirs. Conversations like these help teens realize that their perspectives matter: a big first step in feeling like they can make a difference. If they are interested in a particular issue, find ways to get involved together, like attending a march, writing letters or volunteering for a cause or campaign. Great questions to ask: What do you think would make a difference here? How can I support you in taking action? Could we do something about this together?
4. Elevate empathy.
Some of the most heroic teens are those who quietly spread empathy wherever they go: inviting the new kid to eat lunch with them, carrying groceries for an elderly neighbor, or offering a listening ear when friends are having a hard time. In the current epidemic of loneliness and mental health challenges, being kind and compassionate is one of the most powerful ways to make a difference in the lives of others. Remind your teen that these small acts of kindness may literally be life-saving, and they’re helping to build a culture of compassion in their schools and communities. By the way, research shows this prosocial behavior produces exponential benefits for both givers and receivers. It reduces stress, increases feelings of gratitude and belonging, and boosts overall mental health: a win-win for everyone.