Tween & Teen Materiali$m

Many parents share frustration over watching their tweens and teens develop into insatiable consumers, forever wanting the latest gadgets and clothes. Not only is it costly and frustrating to say no over and over, but it’s also concerning to parents that their adolescents are developing the wrong values.

There are two important aspects to consider. First, that increased material consumption is a normal part of being an adolescent and many will eventually move beyond it. Second, that US culture and parental modeling of consumerism promotes heightened consumption.


IN 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined a hierarchy of needs based on what motivates people, that is still current today. In order to move up from one level to the next, one must first satisfy lower, more basic needs. The highest level is self-actualization, which refers to a person who is fulfilled, doing all they are capable of doing and whose life is filled with meaning.


Level 1 (Basic Needs): Physiology – Food, water, homeostatis
Level 2 (Basic Needs): Safety – Security, shelter
Level 3 (Social Needs): Love/Belonging – Community, friendship, family
Level 4 (Social Needs): Esteem – Prestige, status, independence
Level 5 (Social Needs): Self-Actualization – Creativity, morality

So if we are thinking about tweens and teens, they are generally motivated by mid-level needs such as “Love and Belonging” and “Esteem”, which is developmentally appropriate. In US culture however, and especially among adolescents, feelings of belonging and esteem are often measured through material possessions. So, “showing up to school in a BMW makes me feel more important than if I show up in a junker” or “if I carry a name brand purse I’ll be more accepted by my peers”. Many tweens and teens will eventually move beyond this stage, but not all. In our culture, even many adults are still caught up in equating objects with belonging and esteem.


Even though heightened materialism is a normal part of adolescence, US society heavily encourages and reinforces it.

Statistics show that US companies spend an annual $15 billion marketing to adolescents, which is fitting considering adolescents influence over $600 billion in spending. As a result, tweens and teens are inundated with marketing that plays on their developmentally appropriate desire to develop their identity, be cool (esteem), and fit in (belonging).

Marketers prey on tween and teen vulnerabilities. For example, attraction to prestigious brands develops in adolescence because it’s a time when fitting in and peer pressure are highly important. Marketers also co-opt adolescent culture, like skateboarding, and form associations between skateboarding and their products.

According to some researchers and clinicians, girls are particularly vulnerable to advertising.


According to recent research, tweens and teens that have supportive and accepting parents and peers are less materialistic. These types of parents and peers provide some of the emotional support and positive self-perception teens crave, reducing their drive to find it in external things.

More steps parents can take to decrease materialism:
– Be able to say ‘No’ when kids ask you to buy something. Don’t feel guilty. Think of their development instead. Plus, what kids really need, value and will remember, is quality time (playing, talking, working together, having fun).
– Be a good role model and downplay or address consumerism in your life.
– Teach children that what really makes people happy are things like close relationships with friends and family, good health, sleep, exercise, a sense of control over our lives and finding meaningful pursuits.
– At home try to minimize their exposure to advertising (magazines, TV, internet).
– Adolescents naturally want to expand and explore their world, so provide them with exciting and meaningful opportunities to do so. For example, volunteer in areas of interest to them, travel, go camping and so much more.
– Teach the difference between “wanting” something and “needing” something.
– Teach children about how advertising works.
– Teach children to think about the decision-making behind their purchase and why they like one product over another.
– Resist the temptation to buy more during holidays and special events. Instead focus on making the holiday or event more meaningful.
– Support efforts to minimize advertising in schools.


Many tweens and teens may never move beyond materialism or at least totally move beyond it. How can we blame them when as adults we often suffer the same fate and very few of us ever totally escape it. Materialism and consuming are a part of our culture and adolescents are a product of our culture, just as adults are.

Teens who are brought up in materialistic homes tend to model that behavior into adulthood.


Maslow felt that all people desire to move up levels but that only one in one hundred people become fully self-actualized. Obstacles such as an inability to fulfill lower level needs, life experiences such as a job loss, and our society rewarding lower level needs, keep most people from becoming fully self-actualized.

In case you are inspired to become self-actualized or more self-actualized, Maslow identified 15 characteristics. Not all who are display all 15. Also, Maslow did not equate being self-actualized with being perfect.

1. Free to see reality as it is. Able to view situations honestly, logically and rationally. Accepting of facts. Not fearful of things that are different and unknown and can tolerate uncertainty.
2. Problem centered not self-centered.
3. Frequent peak-experiences.
4. Autonomy.
5. Value their solitude and privacy. Enjoy and value the company of others but also value solo-time for personal discovery and development.
6. Thoughtful sense of humor. Able to see the humor in situations and themselves but do not ridicule or make fun at the expense of others.
7. Spontaneity in thought and action. Also, engaged and alive.
8. Acceptance of self and others. Accepting themselves and others for who they are.
9. Democratic worldview. Others are treated equally regardless of gender, background, socio-economics or other such factors.
10. Deep and continued appreciation of basic life-experiences (sunsets, flowers blooming, people laughing, etc.)
11. Deep, satisfying and loving interpersonal relationships with a few people.
12. Fellowship and concern for humanity. Deep identification with the human situation.
13. Highly creative.
14. Strong moral and ethical standards.
15. Resistant to enculturation but not purposefully unconventional.

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