10 Hands-On Ways You Can Help Your Teens Develop Their Interests
Wondering how to help your high school students prepare for their post-secondary future? Be the champion of their future success with these helpful actions.
It’s hard to be a parent. In the early days it’s sleep deprivation and never-ending diaper duty. The defiant toddler and feisty preschooler stages follow in quick succession. Then it’s shuttling school-aged kids to and from endless activities, practices, and birthday parties.
By the time they make it to middle school and are largely in charge of their own bodily functions and personal safety, you might think things will start to ease off.
But that’s when the real work begins.
Just as young teenagers start to make a case for their own independence, it begins to dawn on parents that there are only a handful of years until they truly do need to be independent. What will that look like? Will they be ready? Will you?
The truth is, your kids have been preparing for their post-secondary future their whole lives. Every interest, obsession, and hated or joyful activity have helped them figure out what they like and what they don’t like; what they’re good at and what they’re not.
As they progress through high school and start making decisions about their future, your teens will need the wisdom and encouragement of loving parents. After all, who is better equipped to help them express and make sense of their passions, strengths, and goals? That’s a job uniquely designed for a great parent who has been with them every step of the way.
Here are 10 ways you can help your kids develop their interests and prepare for a future that’s fit for their individual selves.
1. Know your Kid
Are they active and always on their feet or do you find them curled up on their bed with a laptop most often? Do they love to work with their hands or prefer to be lost in thought? Are they outgoing or shy? Silly or serious? The foundation of supporting your child is being able to acknowledge and accept their basic tendencies. Their unique characteristics can all be added up to a career that’s a good fit for who they are at their core.
As a parent, you may have more insight into their strengths and passions than they do. As a (longtime) observer, you’ve seen them move through plenty of phases and know what has remained constant throughout it all. As your teen considers their future, it may be helpful to share with them your own thoughts on the kinds of strengths, skills, and passions they seem to have – without offering an opinion on one pathway or another. It’s important that, as parents, we try to remain impartial and non-judgmental so they can feel free to explore options without pressure.
2. Take an Interest in Their Interests
Whether it’s hockey or ballet, debate club or cooking, most parents can’t help but be fully aware of what matters most to their kids. It’s helpful to encourage them to think about why they love what they love, even from a young age. Helping them put words to the reasons behind their passions will nurture a sense of self-awareness that will guide them as they discard old hobbies and reach for new ones.
When their obsession with horses gives way to fashion, you may ask them what changed for them and whether the two passions have anything in common. It might also be a good practice to relate their current interests to careers that exist in the world – just to point out that the world is full of fun ways to make a living. Again, no pressure is key. Your role is to provide insightful information, not an iron-clad commitment to the future.
3. Have an Ongoing Dialogue About College and Careers
There’s a unit in virtually every kindergarten classroom on ‘community helpers’ which often sparks lots of interest in police work, firefighting, teaching, and medicine. You’ve probably had lots of dinner table conversations about what it would be like to be a doctor, a police officer, or a veterinarian with your 5-year-old.
Unfortunately, obvious opportunities to talk about college and careers seems to diminish once they move on to subjects like social studies and science. If you want to keep the idea of future adulthood on the back burner of your child’s mind, it’s helpful to talk about it. Point out the interesting jobs you encounter in the world, especially if they relate to a particular passion your child has. Keep an eye on the news for careers that may be of interest to them and talk about how one might get to have a job like that someday. The more the topic is on the table, the less of a shock it is when they hit their senior year.
4. Ponder the Possibilities Together
As a parent, you might be in the habit of daydreaming with your child. Imagine what it would be like to land on the moon? Invent a flying car? Time travel? It’s fun to think about the impossible – or at least improbable, no matter how old you are.
In that same spirit, it can be enjoyable to fantasize about what your child’s life as an adult might look like. Do they see themselves living in a city or the country? Working in an office or being outside all day? Being part of a team or on their own? Without directing them to a specific outcome, it can be helpful to think about all the ways it’s possible to live and work on our planet with your child. They may come to some important realizations about themselves just by imagining from time to time with their mom or dad.
5. Learn About the Options Available to Them
As middle school students turn into high school students, the future starts to close in on everyone. It’s time to think seriously about what kind of pathway your kids want to take after high school. While they might be learning about all the possibilities at school, what do you know about the options available to them?
If your child’s school uses future readiness software like Xello, you can ask them to take you on a guided tour of the explorations they’ve been doing in class or on their own. Educate yourself by poking around at some of the college programs and requirements and the wide range of careers your kids can choose from. It may also be helpful for you to research individual schools or careers on your own so you can support their shortlisted options and provide even more information.
6. Share Your Experience
Do you talk to your kids about your job and how you landed there? Whether it was a happy (or not) accident or the result of a lot of targeted hard work, this information is helpful to a person who will be making their own way in the world of work someday.
Don’t be afraid to share the mistakes you made along the way – and the consequences of them. Sometimes our failures open alternate doors that we hadn’t considered, and this can be a valuable lesson they’re not learning in school.
7. Introduce Them to Potential Mentors
Does your best friend’s cousin have a job that you think your teenager might love? Do you work with a recent college graduate who knows what it’s like to get through a grueling undergraduate degree? Consider connecting them with your teenager.
Some youth might be reluctant to call up a “random” stranger and ask them about their job, so you can help them brainstorm some questions they might ask. Depending on how their email, phone call, or virtual/in-person meeting goes, you might help nurture an ongoing mentor relationship that will allow your child to follow up from time to time with new questions.
8. Encourage Them to Get Experience
No matter what your teen decides to do after high school, hands-on experience with something – anything! – will be helpful. Volunteering, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and participating in community groups are just some of the ways they can learn to work with and relate to other people, build skills of all kinds, and develop competence and confidence.
If possible, encourage your kids to look for a job or volunteering opportunity that’s in line with their interests and strengths. If you or people you know can make community connections, all the better. As parents, we can sometimes help make things happen that our teens aren’t able to do on their own.
9. Encourage Them to Consider All Post-Secondary Pathways
One of the biggest sources of conflict between parents and their child who’s a junior or senior in high school is their future. In many households, the default expectation is to go to college. If a child isn’t suited to higher education or has other plans, it can be hard for everyone.
It’s important for parents to be aware that there are plenty of pathways to a successful future, including community college and apprenticeships into skilled trades. Some students believe that they must go to college to succeed, but parents can be encouraging of other ways to get to a career that’s meaningful to them. It can be helpful to look together at all the different ways to create a happy future.
10. Listen More Than You Talk
As parents, you probably have a lot of opinions about your child’s future. While you have wisdom and experience that they haven’t yet had an opportunity to gain, it’s important to remember that they have to be the ones in the driver’s seat of their post-secondary future decision making.
One of the best things you can do for your child is to be a supportive sounding board who listens more than you talk. This can be extraordinarily difficult, especially when they make choices that seem short-sighted to you, but it’s more important that they have agency over their future than it is for you to be “right”.