How to Support Your Child Through Their Choices—Whether You Agree or Not

mom and teen daughter talking over laptop

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

Moms, we know precisely how our teens’ futures should look, right? If I could, I would set up a timeline with a checklist of when and what my teenage son should do to get to the future that I know is right for him. But is my vision what’s really right? As hard as it is to remember that each one of our kids has their unique abilities, interests, and ways to make their own decisions, the more we push, the more they resist.  

My intentions are pure. I love my son, and I want him to succeed. The facts are that our teens are new to this big decision stuff, and they DO need our guidance (but probably not the way I was doing it, which may have been... well let’s say…. pushy!).

Over time I’ve come to realize that it may be a better lesson to teach our kids to grow and learn from their mistakes, rather than prevent them from happening. I recently saw a cartoon that reminded me that mistakes are bound to happen, and successful people know how to use them as stairs, rather than weights holding them down.

Sometimes What You Both Want Comes Naturally—or Not

I think it starts early. I had a dream that my second son would be a great athlete—my dad and I are former professional athletes—and now it was my turn to be the mom of an athlete. I was going to play catch with him, coach him, and get him in all the right training programs.

So when he pretended he was an airplane on the soccer field instead of being the fierce goal-scoring machine I wanted for him, I had to adjust my thinking. Would it be better for both of us for me to make him continue to play sports? NO WAY! It not only would have made him miserable, but it would have caused stress and eventually caused resentment and bitterness.

There’s nothing wrong in wanting your kids to share an interest with you, and often they will. But when they don’t, establishing your support early on is one of the essential pillars of a good relationship with your child.

When the Parents Love It, and the Child Wants Out

I faked injuries for a year before I got up enough courage to tell them I was done, and I still remember the look of devastation on my mom's face.

I grew up figure skating, entirely my choice. I competed for years. My family moved near training centers and spent all the money they had on coaches. It was beautiful how much support and sacrifice my parents offered me.

At some point, it shifted and became their identity too. So when I was ready to move on and experience new adventures (like having a “life” in high school) it killed me to tell my parents I was done. They never verbally pressured me, but they also never gave me any ownership or responsibility in my training. I felt like I was telling them that they had to quit their life. It’s a lot of pressure for a child to feel that their parents are living vicariously through them.

I faked injuries for a year before I got up enough courage to tell them I was done, and I still remember the look of devastation on my mom's face.

I don’t want to be that mom. I want my kids to know that I support them, but if they choose something else, they aren’t letting me down. I may miss certain things about that lifestyle but recognize that seasons change.

“Provide respect and support while giving up some control,” advises a kidshealth.org article. “Trying to direct your teen's future probably won't be a benefit in the long run. This is the time for teens to develop decision-making and problem-solving skills.”

The Opportunities Look Different for Our Kids Than They Did for Us

For career, options have changed since we were making our initial life plans. There are so many different digital jobs, especially for creatives. For example, when we were young it was a faux pas to want to go into most art-type fields. Today writers can make good money online; artists can turn their pictures, cartoons, and graphics into social media posts; web design is a huge outlet; poets can gig all around. Nomads can make a fantastic career out of blogging their travels. Models and musicians don’t have to be discovered by an agency—they can promote themselves online.

For school, the best news is if your child chooses to go to college, affording it isn’t a closed door now. Students can do various jobs all through an app on their own time to help them pay for college and there are even apps to help them find the right scholarships (not to mention crowdfunding!).

The opportunities are endless, which is fabulous. The downside to all of the options and the chance to work for themselves and change careers on a dime, would be that 10, 20, or 30 years later they are still searching for their lifelong passion. Helping our kids find their way is like an old oak tree: we give them the roots and the trunk of the tree to stand on, then they go off like a bent branch that can grow up and up and produce fruit and beautiful leaves.

Steps to Help Your Child Choose Their Best Path

Elementary years
Let them try a lot of different things.

Middle school years
Narrow down how many things they are involved in to the things they are most passionate about, so they can hone in on their skills.

Provide the best training, education, and club you can. This doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your money. Often teachers will barter for babysitting, or if you have something else you can provide to trade for services, this is great. Get creative. Have your child work for it, so it means that much more to them. What they invest in, they will value more. If they do chores for it or get a job to pay for it, either way, they will see the effort and value.

Early high school years
Explore out-of-the-box options for ways for them to move forward with their interests—especially with the nontraditional ways of working today. Your child will probably have two to three interests for a while.

Be gentle with your words. Be real with but not discouraging. Teens take what we say to heart and it grows.

Junior year
Remember it’s their life and what truly down deep makes you happy is seeing them happy.  Don’t freak out if they change their mind, even if you have invested time and money.

Don’t close doors that your child may want to open later in life. For example, if your child says they don’t want to go to college—and therefore doesn’t need to study for or take the SAT—consider nudging them to take it, as they may change their mind later. It is easier to take SAT in high school when the curriculum and subjects are fresh in their minds.

Communicate with support and opportunity.

Senior year
Be supportive through the college application process, rejection letters, and all the other exploration ups and downs. Let them lead the way; don’t do it for them. It is easier to let go of things you didn’t do for yourself. Start to take more of a backseat role in the process. See what they come up with, follow through with, and peruse. Continue to make suggestions and offer support and guidance when appropriate.

After high school
Try your best to not put any guilt, pressure, or weight on your child. The world puts enough burden on our kids, and I know as a mom I don’t want to add to that for my children. We can believe in them and encourage them and that will help them soar. Expressing disappointment, condemnation, or disgust won’t. That doesn’t mean we don’t correct, redirect, or communicate wrong choices. We should do those things out of love, kindness, and with a strong sense of believing in them.

The irony of it all is they may very well end up doing something very similar to the path you had hoped, or to the path you have taken. Is there a family history of a specific career or hobby? Do you have generations of educators in your family, even if they didn’t all have the official teacher title? Does music run in the family? Has there been small business owners for generations (though they may not be the same business)? Your kids have grown up with you and many of them have your genes and even if they don’t, they have grown up in your house and you’ve influenced them more than you know.

With gentle guidance, providing opportunity, big thinking, and positive encouragement through a few mistakes they will get there! How did it happen for you? Remember, you were a teen too.

Kacee Bree Jensen is the founder of Let's Talk Teens, a place parents and teens can go to find resources and tools to navigate the modern world we are living in. Kacee is a youth advocate, speaker, contributor, parenting coach, and mom of four including a teen, who has spent the last