What do you want to be when you grow up?

October 1, 2014 | Posted in: High School

At a certain age, career choices seem limitless: firefighter, rock star, astronaut, princess.

Fast-forward 10 years and the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” can trigger fear, anxiety and outright panic. This is especially true for juniors and seniors who feel pressured to make a decision about their options. The deadline looms as they consider: college, career or the military? (We’d like to think “sleep on my parents’ couch for the rest of my life” is not an option they’re considering.)

As parents, we can ease their stress on some level by not adding to it. When we consider the question from our adult perspective, influenced by years of experience, we might think we know what’s best for our children. In reality, they have to figure it out on their own. Steering them down a path that isn’t their choice can backfire and leave them floundering and feeling unfulfilled.

There is something to be said for helping our teens recognize their gifts and talents. But choosing a life path? That’s something we should leave to them.

As parents, we can feel our own sense of anxiety about whether our children have direction in life, whether they’ve set goals. Yet, some of us are still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up, so it should be no surprise they’re confused. Consider this: Some of the world’s most famous people didn’t achieve success until long after high school. Vincent van Gogh started painting in his late 20s. Julia Child learned to cook when she was 40, and Harrison Ford was 35 when he got his big break starring in “Star Wars.”

Providing support for our emerging young adults while at the same time letting go of control will encourage their independence and reassure them they are not alone. Read: Untie the apron strings. Now is the time for your teen to put decision-making and problem-solving skills to the test. Be available to provide support, but don’t try to direct her life path.

Resist the urge to offer unsolicited advice. Understand your teen may need you to simply listen while she sorts through her feelings about various options. If you feel the need to comment, share a story about a struggle you had when trying to decide on a career path or other life choice. When a teenager understands that you relate to his struggle because of your own experiences, he may be more open to dialogue and ideas.

Help your teen learn to be self-sufficient from home. Cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, developing a budget and paying bills are all skills he’ll need as he ventures venture into the world. Let him practice and perfect these day-to-day living skills while in high school.

Be realistic about how much you can financially support your teen if she decides to go to college or take some time off to find herself. Communicate your limits to her. We are not meant to mortgage our future for our children’s present, and helping them understand that is an important step on the path to independence.

We should encourage our children to choose a path that is fulfilling for them, not a path they think the world or people (such as their parents) expect of them. At the end of the day, they have to live the life they’ve chosen. With any luck, they’ll have a couch we can sleep on when we visit.


  • Guidance counselors at your child’s school can be a helpful resource. Whether your teen is considering a career, college or the military, a guidance counselor can help him/her sort through the factors that go into making a decision.
  • MappingYourFuture.org is a national non-profit designed to help students navigate the path to college and financial aid.
  • Check out GreatSchools.org for a story on Transition Planning for Students with an IEP
  • From KidsHealth.org: Helping Your Teen Decide What to Do After High School
  • Big Future by the College Board is a great resource for researching careers, finding a college and paying for college
  • MyFuture.com, a site produced by the Department of Defense, has information to help teens decide college, career or military. The website has a “Not sure where to start?” feature that provides a step-by-step guide to (as their slogan says) “figure out what’s next.”

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