Summer is the season of career exploration and college campus visits for many high school students. Sounds exciting, right? As a former high school counselor and current adolescent therapist, I regularly see teens riddled with doubt and anxiety around their future options. This has only increased since the pandemic has shifted the landscape of education and various career fields. If your child seems irritable and short when discussing their future, they could be experiencing some anxiety. Teens are extremely concerned with which college to attend and what to study. They feel that their success in life hinges on this decision. Between the anxiety, difficulty choosing a path, and frustration of feeling lost, young people start to become discouraged about their future.
After looking into where the pressure to choose the “right” college and “right” major stemmed from, I realized there are things we do as adults that make choosing a future path more difficult. Although well intended, we send messages that our teens internalize as the need to be right, perfect, and prepared. That’s a lot of pressure at a developmental age when it is absurd to expect someone to know “what they want to be for the rest of their life.” I don’t even know what I want to be for the rest of my life. My interests could easily shift and change just as they have in the past. Here are two ways to support young people in making important decisions about their future.
There is not one right path. Teens are largely under the impression that there is only one right option. Life is not a multiple-choice exam. There are thousands of options when it comes to choosing a career path. Young people face anxiety and pressure when they are consumed with making the “right” choice. This stems from questions they’ve been asked since childhood. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” These subtle messages create an all or nothing mindset when it comes to making choices about the future. This pressure is turned up even further within the education system. It’s great that we have career path options for students that start at a young age such as engineering, biomed, computer programming, etc. What’s not great is the pressure they feel when deciding what path to follow at such a young age. Not taking the medical pathway in high school doesn’t preclude a student from getting into a premed program any more than it guarantees their acceptance. Life is not linear. Don’t be afraid to discuss the twists and turns of life with your kids. We do them a great disservice when we place a value on everything: right or wrong, good or bad.
Focus on choosing a major based on interests instead of a specific job. This advice is usually opposite from what students hear in school. I ask young people to think about what excites and inspires them. If reading and writing are what they love to do, choosing a major that incorporates those skills will serve them well. They are likely to be just as happy working as an editor as they are a copy writer. Why? Because at the heart of both occupations are the love of reading and writing. This gives students flexibility in their field. I often use my own career path as an example for clients. I majored in English Literature then decided to go to grad school to become a counselor. I enjoyed each of the 5 very different counseling positions I’ve been in because at the very core of what I love to do is helping people. So, what about the English Literature background? It’s funny how things work out because I took all of my experiences as a counselor and wrote a book! Encourage young people to choose broadly based on what they love instead of zeroing in on one specific job. The days of staying at one company your whole life is gone. So why not ask kids what they would be happy doing for the next 5-7 years and relieve the pressure of this difficult choice.
Let’s help our young people strip away the idea that their future success hinges on one right decision. Stripping away this false notion is true preparation for the future. Taking a broad approach to choosing an area of interest and helping students see life as a journey with many different paths sets them up for success!