The key developmental task of the teen years is to grapple with the questions, “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to become?”
One thing that interferes with this important task is the pressure teens feel to package and promote themselves, in order to look good to colleges or their social media followers. This focus on image over substance is the exact opposite of what teens need to become caring and contributing human beings. It’s also the exact opposite of what teens long for. As a clinician, I can tell you that what most teens want more than anything is a sense of meaning and purpose. They want to make a difference in the world. They want to feel that their efforts matter.
Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell’s new book, Tomorrow’s Change Makers describes her research with “engaged youth”—teens who have been actively involved in community service activities for three or more years. The stories she recounts are inspiring and give us a glimpse of the true strength and passion of young people. These teens demonstrate that community service can be much more than just another requirement or resume builder. It can be a means for teens to make a real difference in the world and to discover and develop their best selves.
Three key ingredients emerge from Dr. Price-Mitchell’s research regarding how to inspire teens to embrace “service beyond self.”
1) Experience: Give teens the opportunity to do hard things
The engaged teens in Dr. Price-Mitchell’s research reported experiencing emotional, moral, and practical challenges, and they explained that these struggles pushed them to “learning at the edge” so they had to push beyond their usual understanding. By doing hard things and having real responsibility, teens gained new skills and perspectives. They learned to think critically, solve problems, and interact with people who were not like them in order to achieve their service goals. Becoming capable helps teens envision the possibility of being change makers.
2) Reflection: Encourage teens to consider the meaning and purpose of their actions
Dr. Price-Mitchell states that 73% of the engaged teens in her study reported having life-changing, emotionally intense experiences that inspired their commitment to community service. These experiences caused teens to face moral dilemmas and ponder their personal values. This led to changes in how teens saw themselves in the world. However, an enduring commitment to social action isn’t something that happens in an instant. Most engaged teens described their civic identity as something that unfolded over time, as new experiences prompted further reflection about personal choices and values.
3) Guidance: Support teens’ efforts to grow and become
Engaged teens said they learned their moral values from their families, but many also mentioned meaningful one-on-one relationships with non-parent adults who believed in them. These helpful adults encouraged teens and helped them gain necessary skills, then stepped back to allow the teens to gain real-world experience and become competent by navigating problems and making their own decisions and hard choices.
Tomorrow’s Change Makers is an inspiring and hopeful book with important information for those who care about youth development. To learn more about Dr. Price-Mitchell’s work, visit www.RootsofAction.com or her Psychology Today blog, The Moment of Youth.