Helping Your Teens with Career & Self-Discovery


I was at a family gathering recently.  An elderly relative asked my teenage nephew, "So, what do you want to be when you grow up?"  My nephew looked over at me hoping I'd rescue him from the situation.  I didn't.  But I also recognized the pressure a teen can feel when that question is posed.

HOW your teen eventually answers this question for him/herself is important.

But WHEN your teen answers this question is even more important.  If your teen tries to answer this question too soon...without accurate self-discovery or sufficient exploration of the vast array of career options...your teen could narrow his/her focus too soon.

WHAT can you do as a parent to help this process of self-discovery and career exploration?  Here are my top 3 tips…

First, you can help your teen by noticing and providing feedback about the ebb and flow of their energy or passion. 

What patterns have you observed?  What extremes (either of being energized or drained) have you noticed?    Career change guru, Richard Bolles (author of What Color is Your Parachute?) states, "A talent is usually the one which, when we use it, causes us to lose all sense of time."

It’s important to focus on looking for clues instead of answers.  Let me use myself as an example.  In high school and college, I had so many interests it was hard to even choose a major.  Every course I took (besides science...clue #1), I enjoyed and thought, "Maybe this is it!"  During my sophomore year in college, I learned about a career I had never heard of planning.  I pursued it with a vengeance taking several graduate-level courses and even engineered a non-paying summer internship in a city-planning department.  What I discovered was that I enjoyed the content of the work (creative planning) & some organizing functions, but I was frustrated by the lack of direct people interaction.  (Clue #2...I needed quite a bit of social interaction & variety...sitting at a desk all day would kill me.)  A volunteer experience and relationship with a significant mentor eventually led me in the direction of school guidance counseling.  As I look back, I can see clues that led me to discover the type of career I would enjoy.  Can you help your teens break down the various aspects of an experience—volunteer or paid--and see clues which could help them in their discovery process?

Now for my second tip...You can help your teen by providing or encouraging opportunities for personal exploration and experimentation.

A big fear many teenagers have about the future is choosing a career direction and then finding out later that either (a) they are ambivalent about their choice, or (b) there was something even better that they were clueless about.

It's a big world out there with over 12,000 jobs listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, but the good news is that no choice is ever fatal or final.  Our teen's generation will experience, on average, four to six career shifts before they hit retirement.  Lifelong learning and the ability to flex with change will be keys to success in the coming decades.  So, in a very real sense, the pressure is off to find the "perfect" career.  This reality provides the emotional space to give your teen permission to explore and experiment during their high school and college years.  How can you help?

The most important thing you can do right now is to help your teens broaden their horizons.  You can do this by increasing their exposure to different career fields.

Let me suggest four ways you can assist in this process of exploration and exposure...

  1. Encourage your teens to read about a career of interest.
  2. Encourage your teens to talk to those who know about a career-- "informational interviewing"
  3. Encourage your teens to observe a job—job shadowing.
  4. Encourage your teens to do a job.

Let’s talk about the first idea--reading about a career:

This suggestion is not a substitute for the other three but it does round out career information nicely.  If your teen wants to focus exclusively on reading or Internet-surfing as the sole means of career exploration, you may (at some point) need to initiate some discussion about risk-taking and moving out of one's comfort zone.  If you have the same tendency, your willingness to model risk-taking will "speak" volumes.  The Internet is chock full of career information and advice, dished up in ways that will appeal to teens.  Here are some of my suggestions:

The second way to find out about a career is to do an informational interview.

Your teens can be assisted in the process of setting up a short appointment to interview a person working in a career of their interest.  Make sure the interview is with someone who is enthusiastic about the career and has broad experience in it.  It could also be helpful to have someone of the same gender…especially for women.  Encourage your teens to do several of these interviews each year.  Teacher workdays can provide excellent opportunities to schedule informational interviews.  Your teen needs to have written, prepared questions to ask during this 20-30 minute career exploration opportunity.  You, as parents, can help them "brainstorm".

And just a reminder...your teen needs to be aware that a timely, hand-written thank you note is an appropriate & expected follow-up.  For a complete tutorial—including how to make the “ask”, go to

The third way to find out about a career is to job shadow.

This is when your teen spends a day with someone who is working in a career he/she is interested in.  Some of our teens are visual learners and they need to "see" what a particular career is like.  Job shadowing experiences can be invaluable in helping your teen sort out reality from fantasy.  Your teen might find someone during an informational interview that they “clilck” with.  Start there…or you can use your contacts in the community to assist them in the process of locating someone.  Sometimes the high school guidance counselor has a database of parents who are willing to allow a student to shadow them.  Here are some useful job shadowing tips:

The fourth way to find out about a career is to encourage your teen to do a job.

If your teens are interested in teaching, then encourage them to volunteer in an after-school program or teach a children's class at your local church/temple/mosque.  If your teens are interested in journalism, encourage them to write for a school/local paper or non-profit newsletter.

Utilize your network of contacts to help set up a week or two internship at a company or organization which exposes them to their career interest.  Yes, this would be on a volunteer basis, but realize that in the long run, this exposure could save you money (e.g., false starts, extension of college years).  Be creative.  My motto: Ask anyway...the worst thing that can happen is they say no.

A word to the wise parent: My recommendation is that two out of the three summers during your student’s college years should be devoted to career-oriented internships—even if the internships are unpaid.  The ROI will be worth it in the long run.

Bottom Line...

Parents, you can help not only by encouraging and providing opportunities, but also by helping your teens process the experience.  Just as you may have "coached" them regarding how to conduct an informational interview, you can also assist by de-briefing after each experience.  Probe for reasons for their reactions (positive or negative).  Try to discourage your teen from either making a broad generalization based on one brief encounter or over-generalizing by rejecting the entire experience when there was really only one or two undesirable aspects.  It is not helpful to discount a career wholesale without examining the parts.

For example, your teen may say, "I’m not interested in medicine for sure!"  You may find out the reason is that they can’t see themselves continuing their education for 7 years beyond their undergraduate degree.  But this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of becoming a Physician Assistant, which requires much less training, but involves the same type of work.

And NOW for my Final TIP:

You can help your teen by modeling a life-long learning attitude.

Our teens need to see that we are growing and learning.  Are we trying to understand ourselves better in the context of our relationship with them?  Are we gaining or sharpening skills for our work?  Let them see that you take advantage of opportunities to expand your horizons.

"One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."     --Andre Gide



About Author

Page Cvelich

College/Teen Program Manager

Page Cvelich has brought a wealth of knowledge to the Work/Life Center from prior experience as a high school guidance counselor and parent education coordinator. Page has been responsible for setting up a high school college and career center, designing a career exploration program for teens and serving as a counselor at a backpacking camp in the Rockies. In her role as Teen/College Program Manager, Page enjoys interacting with small groups of parents and teens, as well as consulting one-on-one with parents and referring them to resources so that they are better able to provide the support and encouragement their kids need.

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