Adolescence: The Perfect Time to Contribute

Pre-adolescents and adolescents go through tremendous change. They change from elementary school to middle school to high school to college.  Their individual classrooms and teachers change multiple times a day. Their relationships with family and friends change. Their voices change. Their bodies change. Even their brain changes. In fact, their changing brain makes pre-adolescence and adolescence the perfect time for building the habit of contributing to family and community. One impact of a teen’s changing brain is their growing ability to think abstractly and consider the consequences of various actions and words. They want to make a contribution of consequence, a meaningful contribution as opposed to the simple act of making their bed (which they likely perceive as having little benefit to themselves or others). So, think about ways in which your teen can have substantial impact on others in the community—a regular volunteer position helping children or elderly or homeless for instance. When you want them to contribute to the home by doing chores, explain the “substantial benefit” of that chore. Don’t just make it up; be sincere. Your teen wants to make a difference. Provide opportunities for them to do so.

The teen brain also has a growing ability to take another person’s perspective and to understand another person’s feelings. They often “go overboard” with this growing ability in their attempt to become popular with their peers. This new ability grows so strong they worry about “bad hair days” or the “pimple that will ruin the dance.” But you can utilize their growing ability to take another person’s perspective and their desire to be popular by helping them consider how they might contribute to their home and community. For what group of people do they feel a particularly strong compassion? How might they like to contribute to others in a meaningful way? How do household chores impact others in the home? You might have these types of discussions with your teen while discussing chores, opportunities to serve, or ways of contributing to others.

The reward system in your teen’s brain is also changing. They experience greater positive feelings from new and exciting activities than we do as adults. This drives some of their risk-taking behaviors. However, research suggests that this same brain area (the reward system) drives kind and helpful behaviors as well. In fact, most people, including teens, find kindness and helpfulness a “feel-good experience;” they find it rewarding. Sounds like a great reason to build opportunities to make contributions of consequences into your teen’s life. Your teen’s brain is primed for making contributions of consequence. Create such opportunities in the family. Let them provide real and meaningful jobs like caring for younger siblings, helping with meal preparation, or participating in family decisions about food choices, rules, daily activities, or vacations.   Encourage them to become involved in their school through student government, clubs, or sports where they can take on leadership and decision-making roles. Provide opportunities for them to contribute to the community through regular volunteer efforts in areas where they have a particularly strong interest or passion.

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