Why do teenagers need role models?

Updated February 21, 2017

Adolescence can be a turbulent time, as the body undergoes extreme changes and the teenager begins taking on adult roles and responsibilities. Teens have a way of selecting role models to emulate, whether good or bad, and strong role models can be hugely important during the formative years. With them, the teen can gain the skills and outlook needed to succeed later in life.


A role model helps the teen establish a sense of identity and purpose. It can define the qualities he hopes to emulate and demonstrate the steps required to reach those qualities. For instance, a fictitious role model may show courage in the face of danger, while a successful businesswoman may demonstrate how to thrive in a competitive environment. Teens can incorporate those qualities into their own sense of self, providing them with improved confidence and viable goals to reach for.


With a good role model, a teenager learns ways of behaving that allow him to make productive choices more easily. For example, he can practice hard to make the varsity squad in order to emulate a famous athlete or stand firmly by his political beliefs the way role models like Gandhi or Martin Luther King did. Poor role models emphasise selfish or negative qualities--a rock star with an inflated sense of entitlement, for instance--which can hurt the teen’s ability to function in the world.


Media such as movies and television usually posit easy-to-solve problems, in which a hero or heroine triumphs over the odds in a comparatively easy fashion before the final credits roll. Real life requires coping skills and means of addressing problems so that the teen can learn how to react when things don’t go his or her way.


To a certain extent, parents can serve as role models, since children emulate the behaviour of their mother and father (and parents can’t ask their teens to refrain from behaviour they themselves engage in). Adolescence is often about discovering your own identity, however--an identity separate from the parents who raised you. Accordingly, many teens look for outside role models who speak to their particular place in life.


While figures like Gandhi and Michael Jordan may provide indirect inspiration, the best role models for teens are ones who they can directly interact with on a regular basis. They can talk further with the teen about her hopes, her values and the specifics required to reach her goals. Extra-curricular activities such as sports, church groups and community services put teens in contact with adult role models who can interact with them.

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