Supporting your teenager to figure out what they want to do

This is an article I originally wrote for ReachOut Australia. The edited version can be found on their website here.

“Family life is a work in progress. You only get in trouble if you have to be right and you have to show them who’s boss.  If you are human, it goes much better.” Raising Boys, Steve Biddulph, Published September 1st 1998 by Celestial Arts and revised several times since.

I am a father of five children, four boys and one girl. Three of my boys have left school already, the fourth is currently in year eleven and my daughter is in year eight. I was running an IT business when the Internet was a newborn, Netscape was still a browser and Windows was only 95, and the changes I have experienced in that short space of time have been phenomenal.

What the future of work looks like for our children will be way more complex. This isn’t a bad thing because it means that our children will have a wider variety of experiences throughout their working lives than perhaps we had. It does create added stress for our children though and that is where we can really help.

Tip 1: Listen.

This is probably the best tip I can share with you. My wife and I are both University graduates, so naturally we expected our children to follow in our footsteps. Our first born finished year twelve with excellent results and we began pushing for him to choose a degree. I still remember our conversations,

“But mum, I don’t want to….”

“Of course you do son. Medical research will enable you to work anywhere in the world.”

“But dad, I don’t really like…”

“Computerisation is the future of the workplace mate. With a degree in computer science you will have a career for life.”

He was doing a double degree in computers and biomedical science and hated every single second of it. What he did love though was the weekend electrical work he was doing with the company that looked after the apartment complex where we lived. When they offered him an apprenticeship he came to us to talk about dropping out of Uni. His reasons and his arguments were very good, so we drew up a list of pros and cons with him and asked him to promise us that he would take a gap year to see how it all worked out. He is an Electrical Engineer now, with his own business.

Tip 2: Let your child direct the conversation.

As parents we are all very good at spotting when our child has a problem. Getting them to talk about it though is not always an easy task. I had spent several months trying to figure out why my son was having such a hard time in year ten. Up until that point he was an outgoing child with a wicked sense of humour, yet almost overnight he had become withdrawn and quite sullen in nature. His mother had broached the subject of moving him to a trade college. This thought had brightened his mood a little so I decided to let him direct the conversation about his future. It began with me sharing something about my experience as a teenager…

“I wish I had done a trade instead of going to Uni.”

“Really dad?”

“Yeah. I mean, my degree has been awesome for my career, but it would be so cool to be able to build a house or repair a car don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“If you could be any kind of tradesman you wanted, what would you pick?”

I listened intently that night as my son talked about carpentry, Rugby League, plumbing, girls, electrical wiring, the beach, engineering, his group of friends… and although the topic didn’t always stay on track, it ended up circling back to his future, but on his terms. He is currently in year eleven studying construction, electrical engineering and auto mechanics, and he is happy.

Tip 3: Remain calm and don’t simply give in.

We all can agree that shouting, screaming and losing your cool will never result in a positive outcome. Neither will throwing your arms in the air and walking away. However, facial expressions such as rolling your eyes or a slow shake of your head can also produce a similar result. Whilst they may happen by accident these actions can have the same devastating impact and send your teenager back into his / her shell. Breathe deeply, relax your muscles, focus your thoughts and deliver your responses in a calm way. That will keep the conversation going and hopefully lead to a satisfactory conclusion.

Tip 4: Back their decisions.

When the negotiations have finished, and the decision has been made, get behind it one hundred percent. No second guessing, no revisiting old arguments. You have empowered your child to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. You have taught them negotiation skills and how to organise their reasoning. Regardless of what happens next, just be there for them.

“You invest a lot in your kids, from the sleepless nights early on and the frightening trips to the emergency room, to homework assignments and a million miles of taxi driving. The great thing is that everything you put in counts, and with a bit of luck, one day they will realize it. Love adds up to something. It’s indestructible and immortal and carries long on after your own life is over. Who could ask for more?” ― “The Secret of Happy Children”, Steve Biddulph. Published June 15th 2002 by Marlowe and Company, New York.

Further resources.

  • Australian author and Child Psychologist, Steve Biddulph, has written many books on raising children. I have read, “Raising Boys”, “Manhood”, and “The Secret to Happy Children”, which I can thoroughly recommend. He has written books on girls as well and with my daughter entering her teenage years it won’t be long until Mr Biddulph once again makes his way onto my Kindle. His books are readily available through Amazon and his web address is https://www.stevebiddulph.com
  • Sir Ken Robinson, best selling author, number one TED speaker, education and creativity expert. His website is here: http://sirkenrobinson.com/ and the number one TED Talk of all time can be viewed here: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity
  • Your school counsellor or pastoral care provider.