What NOT to Say When Talking to Teens About Their Future

Teenage boy in troubles

Most parents, teachers, coaches, relatives, and other loving adults want to encourage teens on a path to a good future. And in fact, research supports this idea with studies showing that teens whose parents talk to them about their future tend to be more successful later in life. The problem tends to be how to approach the discussion. Many well-meaning adults either give vague advice that leads to teen eye-rolling or give such specific advice they appear controlling or manipulative. So, here is a list of common “future talk” mistakes for you to avoid:

“What you need to be is a ________.”

Sometimes adults want to suggest a specific career to a teen because:

  • they can see a talent or interest in a teen they think will lend itself to a specific career,
  • they have heard about a need for personnel in a fast-growing field, or
  • they know people can earn a lot of money in a certain field.

While these are all interesting facts that you might want to share with a teen, telling them exactly what they should do when they become an adult is likely to be met with resistance. The teen will be the one to live their life and work in their future career, and no matter how great a certain field is or how talented a teen is in a certain area, if a teen doesn’t want to do that type of work, then they won’t be good at it.  It’s great to let teens know about a career possibility, and why you think that would be a good choice for them, but adults should simply make the suggestion and listen non-judgmentally to the teen’s response.

Experts says it’s best to have conversations with teenagers about their strengths and interests, rather than a specific career. Adults might ask questions such as, “What skills do you have? What kinds of people do you like to work with? In what kind of environment do you think you would enjoy working?”

Parents can sometimes, inadvertently, put pressure on their teens about choosing their first career. They might feel that their teen’s career choice will determine the rest of their teen’s life. While it IS an important decision, the trend in today’s society is for adults to reinvent themselves! Adults often move among professions as our interests and life circumstances change, so teens will have the same ability to shift their career as they settle into adulthood.

“You can be anything you want to be.”

On the opposite end from the last statement are those well-meaning adults who declare that a teen can do or be anything they want. While this is an encouraging statement and does avoid the mistake of trying to dictate a specific career, it doesn’t provide any guidance to a teen at all and also isn’t 100% true.

The reality is, everyone has limitations. So if your teen lacks artistic talent, he may never be able to become a storybook illustrator. Or, if your teen has a serious health problem, he may not be able to become a fitness trainer. So, while adults shouldn’t decide for teens what interests or field of study that they can or can’t pursue, it is helpful for adults to explore a teen’s strengths and weaknesses.

One of the most supportive ways an adult can talk to teens about their future is to help them learn more about their choices. Adults could brainstorm with teens possible careers and then help them figure out how to research those career’s pay ranges, how competitive a given field is and what education is required. You could offer to try to help them find an opportunity to shadow someone in a certain field to see if it is interesting to them. This gives your teen information about their choices, without taking the decision away from them.

“You shouldn’t pursue ______ because it’s too hard.”

Some well-meaning adults want to spare teens stress and difficulty in life, so they advise them to avoid a career that they perceive is challenging or difficult. The problem here is that what one person sees as misery, another person will see as an opportunity. For example, an adult who hates math might not ever understand why a teen would like to enter that field. Adults must understand that something we think is hard, might be just the right thing for someone else.

“Never give up on your dreams.”

While this seems like an inspiring message, it’s not always a good idea. Although it’s important to have dreams in life, adults need to let teens know that it’s ok for dreams to change or shift. Telling someone they should “never give up on your dreams” seems to imply that shifting away from a dream is the same thing as being a quitter. But sometimes, you have to let go of one dream to make room for new dreams or your interests change. A better message to give a teen might be that they should set their goals and expectations high, but recognize that their goals may change over time.

“Pursue your passion when choosing a career.”

This message has become a buzz phrase for adults in the last few years, but it does not always work for teens. First of all, what you are passionate about in adolescence is usually not the same thing you are passionate about as an adult. Very few teens are insightful enough to know what their true passions are yet. The other problem is that a teen might start to think they can only be happy if they find a career centered around their favorite activity, but sometimes it’s better to keep a leisure activity fun as a hobby.

“Follow your heart.”

Many adults love this phrase, and it sounds so nice. The message is trying to suggest that you should follow your instincts. And this can be good advice in certain situations. For example, if you feel that something is not right for you, you shouldn’t do it just because everyone else thinks you should. However, the problem is that the message “follow your heart” doesn’t take into account that all of us, as humans, have irrational emotions. Basing our life decisions on our fickle feelings can lead to big risk-taking and unpredictable behavior. Instead, teach teens that the best way of making life decisions is to balance emotions with logic.

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