For most of their lives, kids and teens are told exactly where they’ll be and what they’ll be doing in the year to come. Their teachers and families prepare them for the transition from one grade to the next, and for the move from elementary to middle to high school.
Then, at the end of high school, teens suddenly have to decide for themselves what happens next – whether that’s more school, entering the work force, or something else. For many teens, it’s their first major decision. And it can be overwhelming.
Connecticut Children’s pediatric psychologist Lauren Ayr-Volta, PhD, shares how parents can help.
If your teen needs help with their big decision, use these questions to break it down into a series of smaller, more concrete decisions.
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1. What do you want to do for… the next four years?
Ask your teen: What do you want to do when you’re 18 years old, 19, 20, 21?
You don’t expect them to know what they want to do for the rest of their life. What you do want is for them to have a plan for once they finish high school.
- Do you like school? Do you want to go to college?
- How about a training program or trade school?
- Are you considering going into the military?
- Is there a job you want to continue with?
2. Within that path, what are your options?
Let’s say your teen wants to go to college. There are many versions of that path. Encourage your teen to do research and share what they learn with you.
Help them reflect on their personal experiences to decide what kind of school would be the best fit. For instance: During the pandemic, did they learn that they really prefer either online learning or in-person learning? That’s important to keep in mind.
3. Once you have a path in mind, what are the next steps you need to take?
Help your teen break this into really concrete steps. The more specific, the better. You could ask:
- Where would you find the application?
- If there’s financial aid, how will we figure out that piece?
- When are the deadlines for these steps?
- Who can you ask if you need more information?
Your teen should lead the effort to find answers and complete these steps. Your role is to help them think it through, and provide support when they need it.
4. If you don’t know something, who could we ask?
Most schools have counselors available to help students plan for their future. And you may find that your teen has a ton of wisdom available through your friends and family too.
- Is there anybody at school who can talk to you about these things?
- Who are our resources within family and friends? Could you talk to some of our loved ones about what life after high school looked like for them?
- If you’re considering a career path, could we connect you with a professional to shadow for the day to see what it’s really like?
It’s OK if your teen doesn’t know what they want to do long-term.
Reassure your teen that a lot of people feel this way, at all ages.
Now is a good time to talk about the final part of any decision making process: Evaluating how it went. Once your teen lives with their decision for awhile, they may ultimately find that it isn’t the best fit. That’s OK. At that point, they can always re-evaluate and make a different decision. That’s part of the learning process.
> Related: How to Check On Your Child’s Mental Health
It’s also never too early to start talking with your child about the future. This is the start of an ongoing conversation, which will last years.
It’s also never too late. If you’re the parent of an adolescent, start talking about life after high school now.