3 Ways Not To Talk To Your Teen About College and Careers

You are not getting through when your teen looks like this. Altruendo Images/Altruendo via Getty Images

One of the conversations I always dreaded during my teen years were the well-meaning adults who asked me what careers and colleges I was considering.  No matter what I said, the adult usually said something that led me to give one big teenage eye roll.  

These adults had my best interests at heart.  They were often family members who were trying to encourage me.  They had the right idea to talk with me about my future, at least that is what top researchers have found by doing a meta analysis of decades of parent involvement studies.

 They just took a poor approach in the discussion.

I wasn't the only teen who ever tuned an adult who was blathering on about my future.  I have watched several parents take these same misguided approaches when they spoke with their teens about their future careers.  Here are the three most common career talk mistakes I have heard adults make:

"What You Need to Be Is A (Fill in the Blank)"

Your teen will be the one to live their life and work in their future career. Maybe you have spotted what their prime talent is or you just know that they will earn a lot of money in a certain field. If your teen doesn't want to do it, they won't be good at it.  

So rather than dictating to your teen what they should do when they become an adult and you have even less control over them than you have now, just suggest the career. Let them know about the career possibility, and why you think that would be a good choice for them.


"You Can Be Whatever You Want"

I have met several couples who told their children that they could do whatever they wanted for a career.  I think these couples were trying too hard to avoid dictating a specific career.  The problem is that they didn't provide any guidance at all.  

It is okay to provide suggestions and ask questions of your teen when talking to them about careers.

 Try talking with your teen about choices and encourage them to explore the pay, how competitive a given field is and what education is required.  This gives your teen information about their choices, without taking the choice away from them.

I also noticed that the parents who told their teens they could be "whatever they wanted" seemed to hope to let their children know that whatever career their teen chose, their parent would still love them. The sentiment is wonderful - these parents knew that they would need to let their children make their own decisions.  

Go ahead and tell your teen they can be whatever they want. Just make sure you also encourage your teen to make a decision and help them learn more about their choices when you do so.

Tell Them To Avoid Anything Hard

I am always a little surprised when I hear parents say this one.  The parent tells the teen not to take on a career that is challenging or difficult, believing that it will lead to a life of stress and misery.  This can come out in a few different ways, such as "avoid careers that make you use a lot of math, the pay might be good, but it's hard"  or "don't go to work in construction, the work is dirty, the hours long, and it's hard.


When it comes to challenging careers, what one person sees as misery another person will see as an opportunity.

I think the parents intention is to have their teen avoid careers in which the parent can't relate to why someone else would enjoy a life involving that type of work. A parent who doesn't like doing math may not understand that someone else views math as a fun challenge.  The critical parent in the construction example may not understand how rewarding it can be to build an actual structure and see the product of hard work in such a  tangible way.

What these three college and career talk mistakes all have in common is that they do not listen to and then guide the teen to making a choice that the teen is interested in.

 Start by listening to your teen, and what their interests are.  Then you can provide guidance to the best career choice.

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