Helping Teens as They Look into the Future

by Martha Chan, M.A., LMFT,
Site Director for Terman Middle School and
parent of Gunn High School graduates, class of ’99 and class of ’03

I want to carry forward some of the resilience concepts that my colleague, Chris Chiochios, wrote about in an earlier newsletter: accepting our children for who they are and helping them to set realistic expectations and goals; and helping our children experience success by identifying and reinforcing their “islands of competence”.

It’s that time of year when middle and high school students are choosing classes for the following academic year, in most cases with some consultation and input from parents.  I want to suggest that parents’ role in this process is to help our children identify their interests and their areas of strength, and to help them decrease whatever fears and stressful thoughts they are experiencing about their future.  This can be challenging, for several reasons.  One is that we tend to project onto our children our own interests and skills, or at least we often hope that they will follow in our footsteps.  This is only human — we want them to enjoy the work that we have enjoyed as adults, and to care about the things that we care about.  Another challenge is what I think of as “the Palo Alto myth” that only certain courses lead to a college education, that only certain colleges will insure our children’s’ future success, and that success is only achieved via certain careers.  This myth seems to sustain itself year after year, in spite of evidence to the contrary.  It’s even passed along from older students to younger ones, who take as truth the message that one must take X number of AP classes and achieve Y grades in order to avoid the dreaded fate of “flipping burgers” in adulthood.

As you go through this process of course selection and considering the future with your child, please ask yourself these questions:

What are my child’s interests?   

What are my child’s skills and strengths, academically and otherwise?

What kind of future does my child envision for her/himself, in terms of     life after high school, work, and family?

Our children may need our help to expand this vision, given their youth and relative lack of experience in the world.  For example, there are many role models in this community of doctors, lawyers, college professors, engineers and successful entrepreneurs.  At the same time, the world also needs teachers, nurses, accountants, people who can build and repair our homes and our cars, sell us groceries, cook our food and maintain our gardens and parks.  In receiving a Golden Globe award for her role in the movie “The Help”, Octavia Spencer quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”  We can model this belief to our children in the way that we treat with respect and dignity the adults who perform this wide variety of work with us and for us, and in the way we talk with them about their plans for the future.

I believe that one of the most important gifts we can give to our children in this stage of their lives is to have faith that their lives will be good.  This generation of parents is besieged by information about our children needing more education than we did, entering the job market at a time of recession, not being able to afford to live in the community in which they grew up.  Whether we say it directly to them or not, they can be encouraged by our belief that they will find their way in life, not without mistakes and maybe not on the first try.  It has become a source of both humor and reassurance for our now-adult daughters, that they can depend on us as parents to tell them, in moments of doubt or crisis, “it’s going to be okay . . .  we just don’t know when, or what okay will look like”.  They know that we believe they can do whatever they need to do to get through the moment, and that we’ll help if we can.

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