skip to main content

A Teen's Hierarchy of Needs

by Linda Lyons

Most college students taking Psychology 101 will encounter Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" -- a tiered triangle that outlines human needs from basic food and water at the bottom to self-fulfillment at the top. Would the needs of high school-aged teens fall in line with Maslow's hierarchy or would they have a list of their own? In 2001*, the Gallup Youth Survey asked 13- to 17-year-olds what they considered to be very strong needs in their lives. They went straight to the emotional requirements -- and the "need to be trusted" topped the list.

Followed closely by the "need to be trusted" was the "need to be understood and loved" and the "need to feel safe and secure where I live and go to school." In all cases, girls were more likely to give the strongest rating (a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5), than were boys. The data do not indicate the reason for these differences, but the finding does resonate with girls' ability to communicate needs or express emotions more easily than boys do. A full 87% of girls, for example, say they have a very strong need to be understood and loved, compared to just 67% of boys.

Tim Smith, a family life pastor in southern California, has been working on a manuscript for a book titled, 7 Cries of Today's Teens, based in part on these Gallup Youth Survey findings. Smith explains, "We determined the seven cries based on the top two net results of teens indicating that a need was very important or important in their lives. A cry is a signal for help. It … doesn't necessarily have to be a cry of sorrow or pain, but it will be if no one responds." The top three cries, described below, stand out statistically from the other four.

A cry for trusttops the list for teens -- 78% feel a very strong need to be trusted, and they also want someone to trust in return. According to Smith, teens are willing to trust someone, but they don't necessarily know how. After all, trust is a critical element of a successful marriage -- but many teens are children of divorce. They are open to giving trust a chance, but they are looking for models. Most want a closer relationship with their parents and/or a mentor. They need trusted guides, but for many, there are no adults around to protect them or show them the way.

Acry for love is the second cry -- 77% of teens admit to a very strong need to be loved. Smith discovered that many teens don't feel loved even though their parent(s) say, "I love you," or regularly give them hugs. They need to "feel" love to feel loved -- they need to feel nurtured as well as cared for. Some of this does not seem logical to parents -- and that is the point -- successfully relating to teen-agers is often intuition or emotion, rather than logic. One can't always think a way out of a problem with a teen-ager, or reason a way into a closer relationship.

A cry for security is the third most-prevalent cry of today's teens -- 77% of teens believe very strongly that they need to feel safe and secure where they live and go to school. In spite of recent terrorism and school shootings, Smith believes that most teens feel safe but are looking for borders that can protect them and allow them to be relatively carefree as they develop through their last stage of childhood. Teens are unnerved by the sense that they are being hurried into an adult world with adult-sized problems, before they are adequately equipped to handle them.

Adults need to pay attention to what teens are saying. As George H. Gallup, Jr. notes in the introduction to Smith's book, "This book calls for adults to listen anew to the cries of today's teens, and to do so with a sense of urgency, for, as one social observer has noted, teens make up one-fifth of the population but one hundred percent of the future."

*The findings are based on telephone interviews with a national cross section of 501 teen-agers, aged 13 to 17, conducted December 2000 through February 2001. For results based on the total sample of adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5%.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030