I have been thinking a lot about the development of a sense of purpose in teens.

One effect of our highly knowledge based economy is that entry into the professional work force requires many years of education and training.

Kids must dedicate themselves to years of study and performance before there is any direct application for the career they will eventually pursue. It is asking a lot of teenagers. While there are plenty of teens who have a clear idea of their personal career path, it is not the majority.

This means there isn’t a direct link for most teens between the educational demands placed on them in high school and a career path they are personally invested in. They are striving to achieve in school because it is linked to some vague practical future career, acceptance into college (to acquire some vague, practical career) or their parents require it of them. They are not personally invested in schooling.

Teens have been faced with this challenge for decades. The increased structure and demands of high school instruction provides a counterbalance to their lack of personal motivation. In fact, the absence of a clear link between school performance and a desired career promotes a more passive approach to academic achievement. Teens simply wait to be informed of the next test/class/application form. “Purpose” is built into the system in the form of required classes, standardized test scores to achieve and applications to complete.

But at what cost? One cost was revealed when schools closed early because of COVID-19. It became glaringly obvious to many parents — and to a lot of teenagers themselves — that teens didn’t have a clear direction in their life. They didn’t have activities that brought a sense of challenge and satisfaction — not even video games that even teens know are diverting but not fulfilling.

They had little experience with and little to no skill in identifying and engaging in fulfilling, meaningful projects. They didn’t know what to do with themselves. And too many of them just sat, doing nothing (i.e., playing video games watching random YouTube videos and using social media).

As I wrote in the intro to my blog series on Workskills in the 21st century,

“In a world where lay-offs and job changes are the norm, rather than the exception, teens will need to learn how to manage their own careers. They must understand how to assess their own interests, skills and work values so that they have a clear understanding of what they want and what they have to offer employers. They will need to know how to research and evaluate the job market and understand where they fit in as a competitive job candidate. And they must be able to develop effective career plans and goals and be able to adapt those plans to changing market conditions. This will require a set of skills that go beyond just academic knowledge and intellectual abilities. Your kid will need some specific competencies that set them apart from their peers and colleagues. . . core competencies that keep showing up in discussions by employers and business executives, experts in economics and employment and in the speculations of academics about the future of employment in the United States.” 

What’s a parent to do?

There are many different purposeful work skills your kid will need in the 21st century work place. I have written about promoting the development of these skills in your child in the 21st century work skills blog series found on my website. Here are some of my favorites.

Leading by influence. One aspect of being intentional and working toward a purpose or goal is taking the lead. Consider putting your kid in charge. They could lead the family “team” constructing something from a kit or set of instructions.

“When you purchase new furniture that has to be assembled, put your kid in charge. Be the worker bee while you and your kid put something together (e.g., Lego, K’NEX), plastic model kits or sewing from a pattern.”

More examples of ways to foster the development of leadership in your teen can be found in my blog post on the topic.

Project Management. A purposeful life requires you to take projects through to completion.

“Project management processes can be applied to any self-contained outcome whether it is a specific product or skill set. The ideal sequence is to have your kid assist you while you manage a project followed by having them assume the manager role in a subsequent project. In both instances, it is important to explicitly lay out the specific decisions and steps to complete the project (even though they may be obvious to you). Going through the process is the important thing. As a way to show how this would look, consider treating a family meal as the project.”

You can find step by step suggestions on developing your kid’s project management skills in my blog post on the topic.

Now that you have provided your teen with some experience in taking charge and taking the responsibility to follow through with a project, it is time for them to practice finding a project worth pursuing. This will begin (or continue) the process of discovering personal interests and making deliberate efforts to explore these interests. Here are some suggestions about how to get them started.

  1. Identify something they have always wanted to learn or do. Purposeful (i.e., fulfilling) activities are ones that have meaning or present a challenge. Talk with your child about their dreams or fantasies of things they always wanted to do but haven’t. This step may take some time if your kid doesn’t have much experience thinking in these terms. It may also take some time to figure out something worth doing that is also possible (because of money, opportunity, etc.). Don’t give up. You’ve discovered an important skill your kid needs to develop. 
  2. Have them lay out the steps that would be necessary to accomplish that goal. The goal has to require some kind of constructive activity to achieve. It needs to be immediate (e.g., can be accomplished within a couple of weeks of consistent effort) rather than long term (e.g., building a house). Let’s say your kid wants to take up skateboarding. Purchasing a skateboard doesn’t count. Acquiring all the pieces of an (undecorated) skateboard all the way down to the smallest ball bearing does count. They are to assemble and decorate it piece by piece not just screw pre-assembled pieces together.
  3. Require them to commit a set amount of time to pursuing the goal. What distinguishes this activity from your kid just randomly picking up some interest is you will be establishing requirements for effort and completion. Persistent and diligent work will be required even if you have to assign it to them. Yes, this can make it similar to a chore. And, yes, it is necessary to insure they “succeed” at this goal. The difference is this project was chosen by them based on their interest. You are teaching them how to accomplish their own goals. Use encouragement, interest and companionship as ways to guide and direct. (Remember, you are not to do any part of the work or give any direct instructions or solutions.  This is their project to learn by doing. You simply require them to work at it and complete it.) They need to learn that being purposeful isn’t all “fun.”  There are challenging, frustrating and boring parts. Even the most enjoyable activity has elements of work. A purposeful life requires commitment, dedication, perseverance, strong work ethic and resolving challenges. These experiences are ultimately as satisfying as the finished product. They just aren’t fun in the moment. And, they are the real skills your kid needs to develop if they are to have a fulfilling life.
  4. Don’t allow them to quit til the goal is achieved. A purposeful life requires you to continue through to the end. Require them to complete the goal. Be sympathetic. Be understanding. Be encouraging. Be steadfast that they will not stop until they “fulfill” the goal.

Wind them up and get them started. Kids need a lot of practice in finding their purpose. Besides, what else do they have to do?

To the reader: This will be the final column in the COVID-19 series. Hope you found them helpful. Thanks for taking the time to read the columns.  Be kind. Be generous. Be safe.



James G. Wellborn, PHD

James G. Wellborn, Ph.D.


Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood focusing on adolescents and families. He is an expert on motivation, coping in childhood and adolescence, academic engagement, parenting and adolescent development. An invited speaker to groups, agencies and churches on parenting and teenage issues, he conducts workshops for parents, teens, teachers and counselors on parenting teens, teenage issues, adolescent development, motivating teens, mental health issues and intervention strategies. Dr. Wellborn is the author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting.  Dr. Wellborn and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee and are the parents of two grown children and, now, of two adorable grandchildren.  You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.

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