community involvement critical to healthy adolescent development

First off let me start by saying that most of what I am going to suggest here, is borrowed from Alfred Adler, (founder of individual psychology).

Adolescents and young adults today are literally bombarded with technical toys like iPods, iPhones, ipads, tablets, internet, games, smart phones, thousands of applications on these phones/tablets.  What do these  technical toys do? They distract adolescents from engaging fully with their community as well as developing meaningful relationships.


We know from Erickson’s stages of development that teens need to be able to test their identity by practicing their identity through relationships with friends and family. Teens also have a healthy need to experience autonomy and in this autonomy will want to separate from the family as much as possible. This means that friendships and relationships in general  are critical to healthy development. When teens are distracted, however, by spending copious amounts of time with video games, iPhone’s, Facebook, chat links, internet groups, and all social media sites, teens risk missing out on an important developmental milestone of ” social interest,” ” valuing of things other than self.” (Otrovsky et, al, 1992).  How do teens meet this need so that they can not only form identity, but also strive for significance?

According to Adler, when people, “lack concern for others, problems with family, work and friendships inevitably follow, “(1992).  When a person cannot strive for ” superiority,” or significance, what follows is insecurity, alienation, and inferiority, (1992). What we find is self-interest gone wild. Put another way, Freud’s argument that our urges control behavior or the id  ( known as the little boy/girl) takes over the ego and superego.  This results in a metaphorical little boy/girl having a temper tantrum and screaming, ” But I want it my way.” or ” This is what I need and I want.”  Over time this lack of concern for others  and unbalanced concern for the self turns into depression anxiety,  and in some cases substance abuse. In other words if all I care about is me, what I value is myself, and my need to get significance in the world is wrapped up in me. We see examples of this with hollywood stars who despite their success end up dying from substance abuse.

The best way to ensure healthy development of children and adolescents is to ensure opportunity for community involvement. This can look like volunteering for an organization or cause that the adolescent is interested in. It may look like getting involved in a community or global social justice concern. Through this participation in social justice an adolescent has the opportunity to learn about values, meaning, as well as develop a healthy sense of significance. In other words believing and feeling like they are contributing to the greater good which then naturally permits a feeling of purpose and significance.

Why is this important? If you think about it, there are many ways that any of us can achieve the feeling of significance. We can rob a bank and feel significant while we are holding a gun and have power over, we can become the best dealer, drug abuser, sex worker, or gang member. These of course are extreme examples, but nevertheless, good examples of how people get off track, or as Adler explains,” meeting the mistaken goal of power and superiority.”  For an adolescent who is vulnerable to peer pressure, identity crisis, and still learning to problem solve, such ways of being significant are not that unrealistic. Even more problematic is the easy way to obtain a feeling of superiority and power  via internet, i.e, porn, sex acts on video cam for money, getting caught up in Avatar games that participate in dysfunctional behaviors .

An argument can also be made that social media is an excellent avenue for becoming involved in preventing injustice both at the community and global level. Social justice media groups are everywhere now. You can join via twitter, Facebook, or choose from multiple other sites.  Not only can you join the groups, but you can learn so much more about what is going on in countries all over the world within a matter of minutes. Can this be a way for a teen to establish values, feel significant, and make a difference.? The answer is yes and no.


Yes, this is an excellent start and probably a better way to be involved with social media than the negative examples I gave, however, social interest means not only getting involved in community but also experiencing relationships in the community. Volunteering physically for a cause is a lot different from typing behind a computer screen. The benefits of a handshake, a  pat on the back, a smile,  or ” wow you did it,” or ” we did it, or ” a social gathering for the cause,  will always override a computer screen. When volunteering for a cause, the opportunity for problem solving, conflict resolution,  and building relationships also shape healthy self-esteem and the belief  that what I do matters.

Most importantly, the benefits of social interest through community causes is an opportunity for your teen to develop values, meaning, and a sense of purpose. When a teen knows what they care about, what they want to do in this life, and how that contributes to shaping a career choice,  the risk of substance abuse, dropping out of school,  or becoming depressed remains substantially low.

Ultimately, helping your child or adolescent become involved in community causes that they care about will help shape your adolescents, values and goals. Being involved in the community causes also contributes to the greater good helping mold an adolescents normal self-centered focus  to a perspective beyond instant gratification that technical toys are so cleverly designed to set us up for.  More importantly, having your teen become physically involved through volunteering or working will ensure  immediate positive re-enforcement, opportunity for conflict resolutions, problem solving, building relationships, as well as   contributing in a way that produces a feeling  of,   “I matter and what I do in this world  is significant.”

Referenced from:

Adler’s Social Interest Theory

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