By Amy Eva
Teens can seem self-centered sometimes, can’t they? They’re still supposed to be developing the capacity to see beyond themselves. They can also seem to lack a strong sense of purpose —and that’s not surprising either, because the ability to think about other people is developmentally linked with a sense of purpose. “Purpose is a part of one’s personal search for meaning, but it also has an external component, the desire to make a diﬀerence in the world, to contribute to matters larger than the self.” Some researchers call this external component the beyond-the-self dimension of purpose: Why am I here? What role can I play in the lives of those around me?
A new study of adolescents and emerging adults conﬁrms that many young adults simply do not exhibit a beyond-the-self dimension of purpose. In fact, a beyond-the-self intention is even “atypical” of adolescents, according to researchers. That being the case, how can we as parents and educators help them to ﬁnd that intention? Here are ﬁve research-based ways to inspire teens to connect with something larger than themselves:
1. Support teens beyond their self-interests: Get to know the passions of the teens in your life. Do they love caring for little children or animals? Do they talk a lot about sustainability? Is there a political cause that they want to support?
“Purposeful youth described getting encouragement for their interests rather than hearing the more general encouragement to get good grades and go to college,” says Stanford psychologist Heather Malin, director of research at Stanford’s Center on Adolescence. “Some reported getting material and social support for their “beyond-the-self” interests.” For example, parents or caregivers might buy them books relevant to their interests, give them rides to volunteer work, or invite their child to volunteer at their workplace.
When adolescents can ﬁnd clubs or structured school activities that connect with their broader interests, they are likely to become more personally motivated and engaged in those activities. If we encourage teens in pursuing their “beyond-the-self” interests, they are also more likely to have a stronger sense of purpose in the world.
2. Discuss values and character strengths: Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to foster a beyond-the-self intention in teens is through reﬂection on their values and opportunities to act on those values. “Purposeful teens talk about big, abstract values (equality, diversity, justice, etc.) more so than non-purposeful teens,” says Malin. It’s crucial for them to have “opportunities to write about or discuss the things that matter most, especially in terms of the values they want to live by.” One way to get youth to think about their own values is through discussions with their peers and their parents. This helps students to identify potential character strengths (kindness, teamwork, fairness, and leadership) envision ways to act on them.
3. Facilitate activities that enhance empathy and perspective-taking: Another practical way to nurture beyond-the-self thinking is through learning experiences that focus on empathy. Consider keeping a journal in tandem with reading a novel, where students record immediate responses as if they were the book’s central character, literally stepping into someone’s shoes and imagining the perspective of the person who might wear them.
Developing empathy and being able to take the perspective of others takes time. It is a long, one might say a life-long, process. Parents play a pivotal role in this, as do teachers and peers. The key is to watch and learn, then act.
4. Expose teens to diverse perspectives: There is a powerful argument for diversity in schools and classrooms. A recent study of several thousand middle schoolers suggests that students feel safer, less bullied, and less lonely in more racially balanced classrooms. But there may be other important beneﬁts. If children and teens are exposed to a range of emotional styles and diﬀerent ways of thinking and being, they may be more likely to engage in prosocial (kind and helpful) behavior.
Because teens, in particular, have an increased cognitive capacity for perspective-taking, this is an important time to expose them to many diﬀerent ways of thinking and being. Teachers might consider inviting a range of guest speakers to the classroom, regularly planning for cooperative learning activities with mixed groups of students, and leading interactive, inquiry-based learning experiences that feature service-learning activities nearby.
5. Model empathy and prosocial behavior as an adult: Finally, when parents and caregivers model empathy and ﬁnd ways to contribute to their own communities, they encourage their kids to do the same. Thanks to a motivated network of moms at school, for example, my daughter has been able to make blankets for local refugees, participate in food drives, and regularly volunteer at an organization that provides diapers and baby supplies for families who need them.
In this divisive political climate, however, some of us may be struggling to engage in our communities. We may feel exhausted or discouraged; we may even feel like hiding. It can feel daunting to reach out in a world that feels topsy-turvy. If this is the case, it’s so important to nurture our innate capacity for caring.
During a time when we are bombarded with images of self-interest, it may be important to think beyond ourselves. Ultimately, good intentions can expand to broader questions of purpose and role where we can all ask ourselves not only “Who am I?” but “Who am I in this world?” and “What can I contribute?”