Talking with Your Teenager About College

Not every teen is suited to go directly into a four-year college or university.

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Teenage student BigStock/

As parents, it’s easy to panic and get our priorities out of order.  Some of us look at our teenagers and we worry what they’ll do for a living.  We’re concerned how they’ll make money and be able to look after themselves once they’ve left the house.  Some of us are worries our kids will never leave the house!  After all, there are only so many jobs for actors, major-league ballplayers, or video-game designers out there.  So we panic and start punching the “What are you going to do?” button over and over again.

Yes, it is important for teens to decide on some direction to take after high school, but why does he or she need to determine that in eighth grade?  I think it’s enough to encourage your teen to do his or her best academically in order to have the most options available after high school? 

Remember, not every teen is suited to go directly into a four-year college or university.  Some need to take a year off and work, experience the “real” world, and figure out what’s next.  Others need to take a year off and travel or volunteer, or attend a community college or vocational school.

You can support and encourage, but you cannot make the decision for your teenager.  The more you push for your own agenda, the more you may experience pushback from your teen.  And that pushback may come in directions you decidedly do not want to go nor want your teen to go. 

While you certainly don’t want to push your teen, you do want to begin to have conversations with older teens about what they may want to do after high school.  You also need to have private conversations with any other adults involved with providing support for your teenager’s post-secondary plans.  Once you know the type and level of support you’re able to provide, this information can be given to your teenager when you reach the point of strategizing and planning for the future. 

As you’re having these next-step discussions, make sure you’re not becoming so focused on what your teen wants to do that you neglect to prioritize and highlight who your teen wants to become.  Deciding on which college to attend can be an easier conversation than what personal attributes your teenager wants to work on. 

Before you go ballistic because your teen wants to spend a year doing volunteer work instead of going to the college of your choice, stop long enough to understand his or her reasons, and factor in, not just the potential for monetary growth, but the potential for personal growth. 

You need to give your teenager permission to pursue his or her dreams and goals along a path different from yours.  You need to give your teenager permission to have priorities for life after high school that are different from yours.  As long as those dreams, goals, and priorities lead him or her along a road to becoming a better person, be as supportive as you can be, both personally and financially. 

Not every kid is ready to tackle adulthood right out of high school.  Many need a few more years to figure all that out; be patient.  Monitor how your teenager is doing.  Watch for forward progress and growth, even if that progress is small by your standards. 

I would venture to guess that if you asked your parents which they would want for their kids — to be financially successful or personally fulfilled — the vast majority would choose the latter.  Make sure your teenager understands your priority. 

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE
and author of 37 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years
ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities
for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center •
A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington,
creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health
issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and

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