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My Teen Expressed They Don't Want To Go To College...How Do I Respond?

How do we support our teens in their own plans for the future, if this means totally abandoning our hopes for them?

Parent and teen conflict is a natural part of raising teenagers. As teens strive to navigate the world around them, they wrestle with questions like “Who am I?” “Where do I fit in?,” and “What do I want to do with my life?” As parents, it is our role to promote autonomy for our teens and model respect in our homes so we can cultivate healthy relationships with them and support them in walking their authentic paths. Whether you do this through setting healthy, yet fair, boundaries in your household, or offering your teen choices to instill autonomous decision-making and self-sufficiency, at the end of the day we want to watch our teens flourish and succeed.

However, what happens when our ideas of “success” misalign with our own teens' view of success? This is genuinely a tough pill to swallow. As parents, we often raise our kids with the subconscious or even conscious awareness that we have hopes and dreams for our children. Most often these dreams are aligned with our own values, instead of uncovering what our teens are really after.

How do we support our teens in their own plans for the future, if this means totally abandoning our hopes for them?

One really common example of how this plays out is when teens express they do not want to attend or even apply to college. As a parent, how do you respond to this when maybe you just always assumed they would go to a four-year university like you? Perhaps, it was never a question in your mind, so this comment leaves you completely blindsided, feeling upset, or even angry.

Instead of trying to change your teen’s mind or criticize their ideas for the future, pause and focus your response.

It is vital to approach your teen with gentleness, openness, and mindfulness. One way to do this is to take a moment and deeply look inward before reacting. Asking your teen for a moment to process and sit with what they just shared can be a good way to communicate that you are here for them but need a moment to pause before listening. As a parent, this stops you from going into defense or an authoritarian mode. Coming back to your teen with a thoughtful and regulated response can help reduce any friction.

If you choose to respond from a more dysregulated emotional place, you could unintentionally hurt your child's feelings by projecting your own desires on them. Here, connecting with your own breath is essential, as it can help you get in tune and recognize any personal feelings that may be coming up for you. The most common feelings are usually grief, confusion, anger, or embarrassment.

After you have taken a moment to separate your feelings from the situation, get curious and gently approach your child with a curiosity about how they came to this decision or what they are feeling. Maybe your teen is intimidated by the demands of academic life. Or perhaps your teen has different plans for themselves, such as pursuing a trade school or starting their own business, that does not require a college degree. Maybe your teen is feeling very lost in life and is unsure what to do but knows they do not want to waste resources going to college at this time.

In these difficult parenting moments, the best thing we can do is come from a nonjudgmental, supportive place and ask our teens questions through actively listening and showing empathy, as opposed to instructing or bargaining.

Remember: a teen’s decision to go to college is ultimately up to them. The best thing you can do as a parent supports their decision, while also setting up good boundaries if they choose to go this route after high school.

Some questions to think about with your partner:

  1. If our teen does not go to college, how much are we willing to continue supporting him/her/them if they aren’t in school?

  2. Will we allow our teen to continue living at home? If they do decide to live at home, are we going to require them to have a job? Pay rent? Contribute in other ways to household chores?

  3. How can we support them in their job search and help them find the right fit?

    1. Setting your child up with a career counselor or reaching out to the high school guidance department to see if they have resources to connecting kids with options outside of college

    2. Finding a mentor your teen feels safe with who went a more nontraditional route after high school

These can bring up a lot of emotions in both parents and in teens. As adults, when navigating these conversations begin to get heated, one thing that we can do is remind ourselves of our parenting values. It is important to make sure that these parenting values are decoupled from the belief that going to college is directly linked with one’s success or worthiness.

Here are some affirmations that can help in the moment in refocusing you when you begin to feel upset, triggered, or comparing yourself as a parent to other parents:

  • I care that my teen takes care of himself; this does mean he has to go to college.

  • I care that my teen cultivates meaningful relationships. his could be relationships outside of college.

  • I care that we always communicate and my teen never feels like I am disappointed about the choices they made in life. This is my child's life, not mine, I can support them in their decisions.

If you’re a parent looking for support while you navigate this process with your teen, or if your teen is looking for some outside support, the psychologists at North Berkeley Counseling are here to help with anything that is coming up for you. We offer in-person therapy in Berkeley, California, as well as online throughout California, Florida, Virginia, and Hawaii. Book your first session today!


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