Graduation Complication: What to Do When You’re Worried About Your Teen’s Post-Graduation Plans

Are you and your teenager currently at odds with one another over their intended high school graduation plans? Well, you’re not alone. Disagreements often surround the first steps into adulthood. But, even so, merely knowing that other parents are going through this doesn’t make it any easier to navigate.

In this post, I will take on the roles of both student and parent in order to simulate some common arguments about post-graduation plans. Then, I’ll offer suggestions you can use to generate conversations and go over a few options you and your teenager can employ to figure out your next moves.

While these scenarios and their recommendations aren’t one-size-fits-all by any means, I would like to emphasize that you should do your best to go into your conversations calmly and with an open mind. Try to have some understanding for your child, and, most of all, the self-reflection necessary to consider the underlying reasons why you or your teen want to move in a particular direction.

Student 1: Why do I have to go to college?

“What’s the point of going to college when I can start making my own money after I graduate high school? My dream is to become a blogger, YouTube sensation, or an entrepreneur. I don’t think school is a good fit for me anymore. The rules are stupid, and all the homework they give us drives me nuts. School just isn’t for me.”

Parent 1: You must go to college to be successful.

“I don’t understand why you can’t see that the only way to get anywhere in life today is through a college education. Sure, I didn’t go to college and was still able to make a life for myself through hard work and determination. But things are different now. Hard work isn’t enough. If you want to be taken seriously these days, you have to have at least a bachelor’s degree. There’s no other way.”

Talking It Through

In this scenario, it’s important to find a good space to communicate (preferably, when both of you are calm and collected). Given the potential for escalation, it might be a good idea to work with a mediator, counselor, college consultant, or person you both trust—someone who can approach the situation with an unbiased view.

In order to collaborate, both sides need to begin by placing themselves in the other person’s shoes. Listen first, instead of trying to offer advice or opinions or suggest what to do. Try mapping out what the future would be like if you were to follow your child’s perspective. Ask your teen to do the same.

Weighing the Options

A good resolution might involve your teen going to school part-time and working part-time, working full time and being a part-time student, or even just working a few hours while attending school. Students can gain a lot of insight from taking classes on (or majoring in) the occupation they want to try after college. Internships are another way to test drive a potential career.

Another option, if financially feasible, would be for you to allow your teenager to try a structured gap year that includes work or an internship, travel, and mentorship. But—and here’s the important part—make sure to reassess the situation every three months to ensure they’re still on the right track. Working with a reputable gap year consultant can produce excellent results.

Student 2: Why can’t I go to Art School?

“I want to be an artist, actor, or a writer! My parents are putting way too much pressure on me to go to a big-name school. And I don’t even want to go. I mean, I get it—an elite school can give you more opportunities. But, even if my parents will pay for my education, I want to do what I WANT. What good is it if I go to school where my parents want me to go? Those places can’t offer me the same art school education or experience that I would get if I went to school out in California. That’s where I really want to go.”

Parent 2: Art School? Not a chance.

“The best career choices are doctor, lawyer, business person, or professor. These paths are reputable and offer good salaries. Pursuing anything else would be a complete waste of time.”

Talking It Through

Just like we saw in the first scenario, this conflict requires both of you to consider the other person’s view and communicate in a way that allows each other to be heard and taken seriously. Remember, no one is necessarily in the wrong here.

Again, having a trained mediator oversee this discussion would be ideal, especially as cultural and generational differences need to be appreciated and handled with care. Understanding what the ultimate goals are for both parties could carve out enough room to get the conversation started.

As the parent, you could ask your child why they want to go to art school. Are they devoted? Do they want to become better at a skill or craft? Your teenager might then be able to hear your side. Explain the benefits of being financially sound. How does having a high-paying job change your life? What’s the upside of being a respected professional in our society?

Moving Forward

One approach would be to propose a trial run. Offer to send your teenager to art school on the condition that they first attend a semester’s worth of pre-med, pre-law, or business courses. This could lead to a newfound appreciation of a specific profession or, consequently, reinforce your teen’s motivation to pursue an artistic track.

The biggest caveat, however, centers around mental and emotional health. Before making any final decisions, both of you need to consider how following either your wishes or their passions will affect your long-term relationship.

Student 3: Ivies or Bust!

“I only want to go to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. My parents are telling me to relax, to chill. But I need to go to an Ivy League school. How else can I become a competitive corporate consultant or investment banker?”

Parent 3: Overachieving Isn’t Healthy

“I’m concerned about you. Your over-ambitious nature and obsession with attending an elite school aren’t healthy. Going to a middle or lower tier college is just as good. As long as you’re able to get good grades and enjoy yourself in the process, then I will be happy, too. Honestly, I’m worried for you and how much you stress out about making it into the top one percent of society.”

Talking It Through

You might want to begin by asking your teenager why they want to go to an Ivy League school in the first place. Discuss hard facts (e.g., the acceptance rates of these schools, their incredibly talented pool of applicants, and the academic rigor and expectations expected of enrolled students). Remind them that ideal applicants are turned down every year from these elite institutions and why having a balanced college list (that includes safety schools) is important.

After you speak, you must be prepared to listen actively and empathetically. This means that you must refrain from interrupting or giving advice while your teen is talking—really try your best to understand their point of view.

It could also be of use to discuss sibling dynamics, if applicable. Sometimes, these relationships can put overachieving into overdrive, with one sibling (or both siblings) seeking validation for their superiority via admission to a big-name school.

Next Steps

It will likely be impossible to stop your teen from applying to a top-tier school. And, while there’s always a chance they could be accepted, figuring out a way to tactfully cushion the blow that comes with being denied can be performed with grace, discretion, and love.

Finding references or stories about other students (who are similar to your teen) would help to highlight real-life situations that could arise from this all-or-nothing mindset. Instead of focusing only on horror stories—which, unfortunately, are plentiful—try and offer examples that showcase success. Point out the CEOs, hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and politicians who have gone to state schools and not only thrived but also outperformed their Ivy League colleagues.

You could also ask a successful professional who is in the field your teen would like to be in to have a conversation with your child. Have them ask questions like, “How did you get where you are?” and “Where did you go to school?” This could relieve some of the self-imposed pressure your teen is putting on themselves.

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Sandra M. Kim is a college consultant at Vested Academics. She empowers students with the knowledge and support they need to achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals, regardless of where they intend on studying.

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