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  • Dawn Spragg

Teens Are Selfish. True or False?

I love working with teens. I love their optimism, and their energy and their resiliency. I love their way of looking at the world and their ability to be flexible and inquisitive. Often, when I tell adults how much I like being with teens, they roll their eyes and comment on how they don’t see them in the same way. Sometimes they will say, “better you than me,” or “you couldn’t pay me enough to work with teenagers.”

Teens are incredibly misunderstood. This is not a new thing. Teenagers have been claiming that adults don’t understand them for quite some time. Adults label teens as selfish, lazy, and reckless. They think they don’t care about how others feel and that they take risks because they believe they are invincible. But in fact, empathy, motivation and impulsivity are all part of the development process for soon to be adults. I’d like to explore a deeper understanding of these myths and see if we adults can reconsider how to be in partnership with our young people.

One common complaint I hear about teens is that they are selfish. So, are they?

Development of the brain shows that the frontal lobe, the area sometimes referred to as the “executive center," isn’t fully connected to the rest of the brain in adolescence. Since this prefrontal cortex is responsible for reasoning and judgment, teenagers might very well act as if they only care about themselves. It may seem like a teenager believes you are there to serve them, but not because they take you for granted. Instead, they just haven't understood all that you are doing for them.

In my work directly with teenagers and in counseling sessions with them, I find that teens care deeply about their family and friends and the world around them. They want to be liked. They want to do the right thing. They want to make the world a better place. What they need is help figuring out how to achieve these goals from supportive and encouraging adults.

Here are a few ideas for how to nurture empathy and encourage selflessness in teens.

1. Offer them a chance to show their compassion. Seek out “helping opportunities” -and not cleaning the bathroom. Is there an elderly neighbor that needs help with yard work or a community agency that could use help? It is important that these helping opportunities promote both selflessness and positive self-esteem.

2. Offer praise for their work and compassion toward others. It is hard to see a teenager do something for someone else when they are not willing to do the same for you. Be patient. They will make that connection when they are in your shoes. For now, encouragement and praise are a great reward and will help them develop a way of thinking about the needs of others.

3. Offer teens time to think about their actions. Sometimes it is hard to remember teens are still learning to be thoughtful and considerate. I encourage asking questions that provoke teenagers to think for themselves. It is easier to tell someone how others might feel, but it doesn’t help them learn as well as having them think about it themselves. Ask your teen to come up with some thoughts on their own about how they might show consideration to others. Only offer your suggestions if they get stuck or are not correct in how they have assessed interactions.

Next post, we will look at the idea that our teens are lazy. Are they really?

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