You might feel like you're sitting on the edge of your seat as you watch your teen try to pave their own path. There are ways to help them succeed while maintaining their independence. A teen and a psychologist share how.

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An illustration of a woman speaking with her teen daughter.
Credit: Illustration: Emma Darvick.

It's not a secret that teenage years involve lots of learning about oneself, figuring out which after-school activities turn into passions, which subjects in school turn into careers, or at least initial majors in college, what makes a good friend. Middle school and high school were the times when I learned that I'm passionate about religion, I'm not so competitive in team sports, history is not my subject, and, maybe most importantly, I am a planner by nature. Some students are like me—they naturally have lists and plans running around in their heads. Others, probably the majority, are the polar opposite. Planning can be stressful for teens. Long-term planning for the future can even be paralyzing.

That's often when parents step in. It can be stressful to sit back and watch your child head into the unknown. There's a tight-rope walk for parents on the line of being involved and offering independence. How much planning should a parent do for a teen? At what point can your child mess up without doing too much damage or incurring too much of a loss? As a college student, I know what it's like to be that teen, to think through every possible plan for myself and still face challenges when I have to ask for help. In my opinion, here's how parents can help teens make long-term plans.

Help Narrow Their Focus

Your teen may be struggling to narrow down what they want to do in the future. The prospect of having years ahead of us, not necessarily knowing what's to come can be daunting or exhilarating, often both. Because of this, some teens apply to a million different jobs, programs, internships, fellowships, colleges, anything under the sun. Parents can help teens to narrow their focus or even shift their focus in a positive way.

My parents have always been involved in my decision-making when it comes to my education. I call my dad every time the class schedule comes out so I can get his advice on course registration. I knew early on that I wanted to declare a psychology major, and he supported me in this decision knowing that major declaration can be changed at any point. This detail was important to him, because he didn't want me getting stuck, and for good reason. My mom was always thinking pragmatically in terms of the job market. She often reminded me to make sure the line of work I was considering had projected growth, paid well enough, and would be a sustainable path in the long term. My dad did not want me to be too career-oriented that I'd end up with tunnel vision, a tendency I sometimes had.

The balance between reminding me what to watch out for (rather than watching out for it themselves), and supporting me and my ability to make good decisions for myself was the key to my success thus far in college and in my life. It was also the key to my feeling of confidence in everything I pursued, which ultimately trickled into my concept of self-worth and aptitude.

Set a Threshold for Failure

It's good to know when to step in and when to let your child make their own choices, even if it will lead to failure. It's sort of this failing-forward threshold. I always loved that idea of failing forward. You mess up, but it's a positive experience in the end because you learned from it. In helping your teen plan for their future, I would say (candidly, I have lots of experience being a teen, but no experience being a parent) start by thinking of what that fail forward threshold is for you, and if you have one. If you're comfortable letting them potentially, keyword potentially, not succeed in their next endeavor, then you let them take the shot. If you think the cost of making that possible mistake will be greater than the benefit of learning from said mistake, you might have reached your threshold.

Accept That There Will Be Unknowns

When it comes to your teen, being excited by the unknown has to be okay. Long-term planning can be more stressful when you feel like you have to know where you are going. Honestly, you don't need to know. Many colleges and professionals are advocating for productive gap years, especially in light of the pandemic. Taking time off to learn more about your passions, aspirations, and goals could be a good way to recharge. For those who can afford to make a decision like this, I'd at least suggest thoughtful consideration. My parents and I deliberated heavily about this possibility for me, but I ultimately decided against it.

Instead, I decided to go into college with an undeclared/undecided major. Depending on schools, most students have until around their second semester of their sophomore year to choose their final major, and honestly, it can still change after that. It can be easier to take general education requirements and the more exploratory courses that can help one figure out what path is right while not getting behind in one's studies.

An Expert Weighs In

"Parents should encourage their child to try different things, even things that are outside of their comfort zone," says Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D., a child psychologist and mom of two in New York City. This should be something the parent identifies as a strength or interest for the teen. Not just something that everyone else is doing.

"I like to follow the rule of threes—have your teen try something three times. Then have an open dialogue about it. If they did not like it, don't force them to continue, but discuss what they didn't like about it," Dr. Zeltser says. "Did they not enjoy the activity or did they not like it because they weren't good at it? Just because they are not good doesn't mean they shouldn't do it. Practice makes perfect."

Dr. Zeltser also says that it's important for parents to teach children and teens to be flexible thinkers. "Those failures or things that don't meet our expectations are what makes us stronger and lead to personal and professional growth," she says. "It's important for parents to teach children to set realistic expectations so there is less room for them to be disappointed. And if and when they are disappointed, because this will happen, they can handle that disappointment."

This flexibility will help your teen if they don't get into their dream college or get a job offer. Dr. Zeltser says, "With your guidance, your teen will be able to figure out on their own what they can do instead."

Ariel Wajnrajch (she/her), 20, is a rising senior at Binghamton University pursuing an accelerated MBA degree while earning a degree in psychology. She writes for the opinions section of Binghamton University's largest independent student-run newspaper, Pipe Dream.