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My Graduating Teen Doesn't Know What To Do Next

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

“He has no idea what he wants to do after high school. He is so smart and good at so many things, but he has no direction. I’ve been telling him to just do something, anything. There are so many options…surely he can find something he wants to do. He can always change later.

Even if he just works…

“But he has to do something. I’m not willing for him to sit around and waste his life.”

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Sound familiar? As we head into university application season, a surprising number of parents are feeling exactly this way, and it can be both frustrating and frightening to witness your child going through this.

Understanding what might be going on can help you to support your child through this time.

By the time they reach the end of their pre-university stage schooling (high school, A-Levels, Cegep, etc,) 18 or 19 year-olds have spent something like 14 years in school. For those who went to daycare, another 3 or more years of similar-to-school experience can usually be added to that total.

So, what were those 14+years of institutionally-oriented living like - really like? And how might those experiences be playing into what your teen is feeling now?

Some of these graduating students will describe years of wonderful learning, self-discovery, friends, community, mentorship. Others might describe something completely opposite - exhaustion, stress, bullying, anxiety, boredom, lack of autonomy.

One thing is common to all students who emerge from our conventional education system:

how they spent their time (both in school and out), and what they were focused on learning was largely out of their control.

They were told:

  • what time to arrive at school

  • what to learn in each subject area and how

  • when they could be with their peers and teachers

  • when they could speak to their peers and teachers

  • (for many) when they could eat and use the washroom (or not)

  • that their responsibility to their school extended into their free time as well - homework and school-related exhaustion

  • and more

Yes, there are decisions that students are allowed to make about which electives they take, which essay topic to choose from those offered, which academic stream to be in, even which year-long personal project to complete. But these decisions are firmly within the overall expectation that children and teenagers attend school, and that they will be evaluated on their ability to engage, and to do the work according to the measures of success determined by the system.

The opportunities for true intrinsic motivation are limited, and almost always impacted by an element of school-related obligation.

Let’s return to our 18 year old graduate who has no idea what he wants to do, and re-consider his situation.

Over the last few years he has likely been realising that he is “almost done”. Much of his energy may have been focused on pushing forward to get to the “finish line” ie graduation. But now that the finish line is upon him, he is stuck, unable to imagine or plan what comes next.

Yes, many people in this stage of life are happily applying to university in a field that they have chosen. But the reality is that this path of high school (or equivalent) to university is not always a positive one - mental health struggles, repeated changes of majors or dropping out, and general lack of engagement are common among university students. It is not necessarily a bad thing to step off this path for a time.

So, what if we thought about this transitional moment in a young person’s life differently?

This might involve...

  • considering what it means and how it might be feeling for "our young person" to be transitioning into adulthood

  • spending some time remembering and even rethinking the core of what we dream of and hope for our adult children (perhaps to know themselves, and to be able to care for themselves, to be happy, and healthy.)

  • recognizing that our child may simply need to rest, deeply rest

Think of a time in your adult life when you worked hard towards a goal, or made your way through a period that was so busy and intense that you just didn’t have the capacity for anything else until it was done.

That may be how our graduate is feeling right now.

Might we as parents consider what a loving and safe space for these graduates to catch their breath could look like?

One of the analogies that I use in my work relates to trampolines.

I describe parents as the frame, net and mat. They are the strong and safe landing spot for their kids, who jump with increasing height and skill over the course of their childhood. As the all-important mat, parents help their kids to bounce higher and, of course, we are there to receive them when our kids come back to connect.

I’ve met a lot of people who are finishing high school, cegep or even university, who, after years of jumping higher and harder, now need to just lie on that trampoline mat for a little while.

They are tired, really tired.

They need to rest and look up at the clouds moving through the sky. They need to find their way back to themselves. Only then will they be able to get up and jump again.

How long they will lie there varies - but that "time out of time" is absolutely critical to their ability to move forward in a positive and healthy way.

This nearly-grown child is processing so much in order to find their way back to their true self, to their intrinsic motivation. There are many, many years of external input to sift through before they can re-find their self, and their path.

How this "time out of time" looks varies from family to family. But what I consistently see is the deep and lasting value of parents accepting the importance of this process, and giving their child the safety, time and space to breathe.

It truly is a worthwhile investment of time and energy, and perhaps something to be looked on as a gift more than a frustration.

Yet even if we can set aside our frustration at our child's seeming lack of direction and momentum, there is still the element of fear: the fear that our child won't be okay if they don't go to university - or at least do something - right now?

One of the most difficult things for parents to realize is the limited benefit of the fear we feel for our children. My two kids are currently 18 and 21 years old. I have had plenty of experience feeling fearful about something to do with them, and realizing time and time again that the energy I invested in this fear was wasted, and often actually counterproductive.

It is true that we may feel fear when something difficult is happening - how could we not? But, we can often make choices about the extent to which that fear governs our actions and interactions, though of course how and whether to do that is personal to each of us.

Here are a few thoughts that may help.

  • There are many benefits to taking one or more "gap years". In a way, universities recognize this by offering their professors sabbaticals. Spending some time googling "benefits of taking a gap year" can very eye-opening and inspirational.

  • Many people have successful (by any definition!) lives without ever going to university - or even getting a high school diploma. Another great thing to google.

  • Think of a time that you (or your child) did something because you thought you should, or you had to. Now compare that with a time you did something because you chose to, and even wanted to. The frame-of-mind with which we begin university, or even a job, is important.

  • Many parents expect that their almost-adult child will wind up playing video games all day, sleep until noon, and generally fall apart if they aren't actively engaged in university, college or a job. This may happen! If it does, seeing it as a cocoon time can help: caterpillars come apart completely in the cocoon before emerging as butterflies. This metamorphosis happens most successfully when the cocoon is in a safe place. Your child's current safe place may simply be at home, with their family.

But, no matter how compelling or lovely the image of a cocoon may be, I know that many parent readers are currently imagining their overgrown teenager living in the basement, on screens all day, leaving dirty dishes everywhere, and eating all the food in the house! Read on.

These years in our child's life are also the time that we are deciding - and discovering - how our adult to adult relationship with our child will be. What does it feel like, and what happens, if you embrace this time to seek connection with rather than control over this beautiful human being whose world you are sharing?

Choosing connection rather control can shift relationships and allow paths forwards that we can’t conceive of until we start to walk them. This can include communication about how to live together!

Let's return for a moment to our analogy of the teen lying on the trampoline watching the clouds go by.

How do you feel about this now? Is it possible to let the frustration and fear morph into a gentle smile, perhaps the same kind of smile you had when this teen was a baby cuddling into your arms at the end of long day? What does that cuddle look like in today's context? It may be a hug, or an offer to make them a coffee, or just quietly turning away and leaving them to their cloud watching.

It's definitely not always easy, but for many, many families that I know and work with, valuing that trampoline time has been transformative.

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