Helping Teens Discover Values to Live By

“How would you describe your family in three words?” asked blogger Joanna Goddard. What core values rise to the top when you think about who you are, who your family is, and who you hope your children become? If you had to pick, does curiosity or entrepreneurialism or kindness or teamwork rise to the top as one of your most important values?

Clear Values Support Parenting

Identifying the traits or values that you most respect can be a useful parenting tool. When you know your top family values you can better understand why you are more disappointed by your teen’s insensitive social media post than by that same child’s poor grades. Values can also help you select the parenting issues that you will be sure to enforce and to discuss with your child. You’ll also identify those issues where you are flexible and open to more discussion with your teen.

Values Help Grow Teen’s Life Goals

Talking about values is healthy for teens. Youth (and adults) who have purpose or life goals beyond themselves tend to have greater wellbeing. Associate Professor of Psychology Kendall Cotton Bronk studies young adults and their purpose in life. She found that simply having young people talk about what matters in their life boosted their sense of purpose. Although her research was based on a 45-minute conversation in a lab, parents and mentors can spark these conversations about purpose by encouraging youth to identify and think more deeply about their values, interests, and concerns.

From a parent’s perspective this can be both rewarding and challenging since some of your teen’s top values might differ from your own values. As challenging as this may be as a parent, the ability to identify his or her own values is a strength for your teen! During the teenage years, adolescents move from relying on parents to make decisions and set values for them (external control) to developing their own set of guiding principles that help regulate their behavior (self-regulation). Teens who have developed a core set of values will have a foundation to make safe, solid choices when they are on their own and cannot rely on a parent to guide the “right” choice.

Finding Your Personal and Family Values

One way to identify your current personal and family values is to look through a list of words like those listed in the image (above) and underline those words that best describe you and your family. Then go through those underlined words and narrow it down to ten and then to three.

Now take some time to think about why these three values are so important to you. How do you try to live them out? Have they changed or evolved as your child has grown? Invite your parenting partner or your teen do this activity at the same time. Identify your values separately and then look at where you share values and where you differ. Try to find three values that you share with your partner or your teen. These values might be considered your shared family values.

If your teen isn’t open to a structured conversation about values, you can still find opportunities to talk about values.

  • Lead by example: Try showing what matters to you by talking about and living out your values.
  • Be observant: Notice your teen’s interests and start conversations about what matters to him.
  • Do rather than talk: Encourage experiences that emphasize values – volunteer at a homeless shelter, contribute a gift to a toy or winter coat drive, send “just because I care” letters or text messages to friends or acquaintances – and then talk about the values associated with these experiences.
  • Let someone else do the talking: Work through a book like University of Wisconsin – Madison Professor Christine Whelan’s “The Big Picture,” which suggests identifying 3 values + 3 skills + 3 points of impact, to get readers thinking about how their values can intersect with what they enjoy doing to impact others.

Frequent, open, positive communication about values gives your teen many opportunities to process their own purpose and morals.


Article by Anne Clarkson

Anne-Headshot-useAnne Clarkson received her doctorate in Human Development and Family Studies from UW-Madison and is currently the Digital Parenting Education Specialist with UW-Extension Family Living Programs. Over the past 10 years, she has worked as an educator in the fields of community health, parenting, family studies, and digital education. She and her husband are excited to be starting their own parenting journey this summer. Anne was a pretty easy teenager whose parents worried more about pushing her to try new experiences than about her rebellious behavior. When not talking about families and technology, Anne loves to cook, read, travel, play board games, and take long walks (ideally along beaches but typically along sidewalks).