by Helen Burke, BYS Counselor

‘Tis the season – holidays, family get-togethers, seniors pondering post-high school plans that might include submitting college applications. It is also the season of “the question” – teens being asked by curious adults some variation of “What do you want to do after high school?” (Which colleges are you interested in? What do you want to study?) Something I hear frequently from students is that they do not enjoy being asked this question, or that they get asked the question too much. 

Adults are genuinely curious and mostly have good intentions, but these questions often leave teens feeling more anxious and uncertain. They might say what they think adults want to hear, what seems socially acceptable, when the true answer might simply be “I don’t know” or “I’d rather not talk about it.” It is hard not knowing. It is hard not having an answer. It is hard being frequently reminded of something that is stressful.

For youth considering post-high school plans, they are likely facing the biggest decisions they have made so far in their life. Some will choose to go through the college application process, opening themselves up to judgment and the risk of rejection. The process can be an opportunity to take healthy risks, to learn more about themselves and their strengths, but it can also be anxiety-provoking. So, how can we adults balance our genuine interest in their future with a desire to not add to an already stressful process?

If you are a parent/guardian: Check-in with your teen and ask them how they feel about having these conversations. If you are helping them with the process, work together to be intentional about when and how often you have this conversation. “Is now a good time to talk about . . .” is a good way to start. If you decide to check in about this just on the weekends, for instance, be sure to honor this plan and resist the impulse to bring it up at other times.

If you are a teen: Consider how you might respond in a way that feels right for you to a question you will most certainly be asked. “I really don’t know yet” is a fine answer – uncertainty is part of life. Or something like “I am considering a few different ideas but haven’t decided yet” might be a good segue to ask the questioner what their experience was like when they were deciding what to do after high school. And if you feel comfortable, you could even be honest and say “That question is really hard for me to answer which kind of stresses me out – but I did see a great movie last week.”

For caring adults outside the teen’s immediate family, this conversation often starts out of habit. This happens to be a go-to question for adults talking to teens they might not see often or know well. If you are going to see extended family members or friends over the holidays, remember that you are one of many who might be asking this teen the same question. If you aren’t sure what to talk about, consider asking them something that is more present-oriented like “How has the transition back to full-time school been for you?” or “What’s something that made you laugh recently?” Or, share something you are excited about in your own life – some teens would love to have the spotlight on someone else! 

I love what Kurt Vonnegut had to say in this commencement speech because it reminded me what it was like to be young and in the position of trying to decide what to do with my life.

“Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum . . . . Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.” 

For more inspiration:

Washington Post article:

From a rising senior: