Joe is a junior in high school and seems carefree. Every week his parents add college brochures to the mountain of materials accumulating in the corner of his bedroom, but as the pile mounts, so does their anxiety. Joe curtails any conversation about the future by making a joke, changing the subject or stating, "I don't want to talk about that right now." Meanwhile, his parents have nightmares of Joe living in their basement well into his 30s.
If you find yourself identifying with Joe's frustrated parents, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Parents are often far more concerned about their teens' future than the kids themselves are. Cognitive maturity, personality, culture, family environment and even birth order play into how a teen approaches the future.
Even though your 16-year-old may look like a full-grown adult, he isn't. In fact, his brain will not be completely developed until age 25. The frontal lobes of his brain, which are responsible for long-range planning and thinking through consequences, are the last areas to mature. Coupled with the reality that your teen doesn't have the experience necessary to anticipate what the next several years may hold, his "future" may be a vague concept in his mind. But you can help him to conceptualize a reality that seems light years away.
Try bringing the long-term into the short-term. Many parents hope to motivate their teens by projecting a big vision for the future. They talk about SAT scores, compare the salaries of artists and dentists and create a roadmap for their teens that will balance both career and family. Most teens require more short-term, concrete motivation.
While it may be difficult for a 16-year-old to understand how his failing geometry grade limits his dream of someday being a corporate buyer for his favorite clothing store, he can understand how failing to turn in his homework assignment on Wednesday translates into no car keys on Saturday. He can also identify with the idea that he'll have no spending money unless he gets a summer job. Without micromanaging, help your teen understand how responsibility and diligence lead to freedom, while irresponsibility limits freedom. This life lesson will carry into how your teen approaches tasks both now and in the future.
Let them decide
Be careful not to expect too much responsibility from your teen. One father determined that his daughter was destined for only the best. With her sharp intellect and honed people skills, she could get into the most competitive schools, and Dad was willing to pay for them — if only she would apply herself. Nag and plead as he might, the daughter seemed content with B's and C's. She loved high school — school plays, starting on the volleyball team and hanging out with friends. While Dad was constantly trying to build his daughter's resumé. and bolster her GPA, she just wanted to have fun.
Teens desire to make their own decisions, so here's a formula to keep in mind: A parent's level of concern is usually inversely proportionate to the amount of responsibility the teen is assuming. In other words, teens often rebel, actively or passively, against pressure to live according to their parents' designs. When it comes to making college decisions, teens want to know that the choices are their own.
It's their future
Instead of pressuring your son or daughter about the future, try letting go a little. Resist the urge to fill out college applications for your teen. If a deadline passes, it passes. Your refusal to intervene will effectively communicate to your teen, "This is your future. I made my decisions. Now you can make yours." Many parents are shocked and delighted to see their teens embrace responsibility once the psychological reins have been handed over.
Letting go is perhaps the greatest challenge of parenthood. As you struggle to release your fears, dreams and desires for your child, take comfort in the words written in Psalm 139:15-17, "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!"
God holds the future in His hands — both yours and your teen's.