Teens and Career Paths: Why to Not Worry So Much

In my work as a registered mental health professional, I have counselled many teens who struggled with issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, interpersonal/family issues, and low self-esteem/self-worth. A subject that often comes up with these clients is the ‘need’ to figure out what career they will pursue, and/or how quickly they need to or ‘should’ make this decision.

This can lead into thoughts of what would be required to get into a given field, the stress related to getting required grades for acceptance into the applicable college/university program, and stress linked to pressure from their teacher, guidance counsellor, friends, and/or their parents. Many teens feel pressure to know exactly what field they plan to enter, ASAP.

Whether you’re a teen, teacher, or parent reading this, it’s important to know that it is not essential to know what one wants to do with their career until later high school years, despite popular opinion. For many people the realization doesn’t come until later into adulthood once they have had an opportunity to grow, learn and decide what best suits their personality and skill set.

One recent concept that has been a subject of conversation in the news is that of ‘grade-inflation.’ ‘Grade-flation,’ similar to inflation in the economy, refers to the phenomenon of higher grades in the A- to A+ range being given to a larger number of students today when compared to high school students 5 to 10 years ago and beyond. It’s believed that this phenomenon has taken place for a number of reasons, including changes in the Ontario curriculum and ‘adjusting’ for any cognitive and brain development consequences COVID-19 lockdowns and accompanying, and inconsistent, online schooling may have caused.

While I believe that students were, in fact, being graded ‘too hard’ in the past, grade-flation has resulted in negative consequences for teens, such as the need to consistently compare their academic performance to that of their peers, self criticism/self-shame (including shame and criticism from parents) when grades that were ‘expected,’ aren’t achieved, signalling that a student is struggling or not ‘working hard enough’… because if one doesn’t work hard enough, ‘how can they one day be accepted into a college or university program?’ is often the belief by teens and/or their parents. This can then lead to further focus on knowing what one wants to study in college/university and what career they will pursue, as young as the ages of 14 and 15 years old.

Through my clinical work and expertise in working with teens, having an early focus on what one is going to do with their life is actually more harmful than beneficial. I realize that this may be surprising to some parents, in particular, because they want the best for their children and want them to have a healthy and successful future.

 However, placing excessive and consistent focus on the aforementioned can actually be counterintuitive to a teen wanting to or having the desire and drive to develop and pursue an academic path for their future career.

Many realities in today’s world also exist in regards to teens knowing their career path and working successfully towards it, including careers that teens and parents do not realize exist or consider as having an impact on their academics and career plans. These include such factors as the fluctuating job market, the influence of media (primarily social media), having multiple passions and interests, too many adults with differing views and opinions voicing to teens their wants and plans for their career path, and, most importantly, adolescent brain development and a teens limited ability to fully plan for the future. Given the impact of these factors on teens, I have broken down of the most common  and explained why these factors have an impact and their true level of importance regarding teens ability and drive to plan for their future career:

  1. Job Market and Teens Having General or Vast Passions/Interests: 

The impact of quickly advancing technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, advertisement, and the ability to work remotely have all played a role in the demand for certain skill sets and credentials to secure a job in this market. Having some flexibility as a teen, or the parent of one, in regards to knowing ‘exactly’ what they would like to do for a career, is needed.

 For example, if a teen is interested in working with computers, but is not sure about what exactly their job title or career path will be, simply knowing that they are interested in computers is good enough to lead them down a successful academic road to finding their eventual career. Applicable and transferable skills are what matter most in most career paths and industries! There is no need to ‘overanalyze,’  or place extra stress on teens about specific plans and details with their career path, course selections, grades early on in their high school career, etc.

  1.  ‘Too Many Cooks in The Kitchen’

I have often found when teens are stressed about their academic performance and    planning for their future and career, there are too many competing adult voices in the mix. This may be well intentioned, but one factor that many parents do not consider is how these comments can sometimes result in resentment by their teen for always being inquisitive. It can become so stressful that teens could become burned out with caring about their future schooling and career path, leading to depressive symptoms such as anxiety and poor academic performance. Throughout my career, I have never met more teens who are as hard on themselves about their academic performance and their future schooling and career, than this day and time.

These teens have often been more concerned about their own success than their teachers, coaches, parents, etc. and often become overly stressed and concerned with being able to compete with other students for such things as spots in college or university programs and  later on in their field and job market. I always remind parents, coaches, teachers and other adults in teens’ lives to be mindful of the pressure they place on teens.

  1. Brain Development and Realistic Expectations of Teens: 

Possibly the most underrated factor when it comes to an adolescent’s ability,  drive, and commitment to their academic success and eventual career is that of brain development. I often suggest to parents that they actually treat their older children and teens as if they were 1 to 2 years older than they actually are (E.g., trusting them with certain tasks or information share with them so that they, in turn, ‘prove’ to themselves and their parents that they are ‘capable’ which builds confidence), when it comes to persistent focus on academic performance and career planning, parents must be mindful of what a teens brain is and is not capable of!

 The prefrontal cortex is often not spoken about in regards to brain function within adolescence. The job of the prefrontal cortex is to manage judgement, reasoning, impulse control, and planning. As a teen’s prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until the age of 25. Adults in teens’ lives must be mindful of this when it comes to planning for their future! The reality is, without a fully formed and functioning prefrontal cortex, teens often make poor decisions, will take part in risky behaviours, judge the ‘risk vs. reward’ of their decisions badly, and make mistakes when it comes to their studies and plans for their future school and career.

The fact is, even if a teen is intelligent, achieves high grades throughout high school, and comes to know ‘exactly what they want to do with their life,’ the fact remains that their brain is not fully developed in addition to many other external factors that may impact future plans and their career. Such factors, for example, could include discovering new passions and interests, losing interesting or not enjoying topics/subjects they once enjoyed, and/or feeling their ‘path’ was more their parents’ path for them, and not their own, amongst several others. In other words, there is only so much planning that can be done for, and by, a teen before it can actually become counterintuitive to them being able to successfully navigate their future education and career planning. A healthy option for parents and teens to take is having a balanced and semi-structured approach to planning for post-secondary studies and career planning. A set number of meetings, maybe two to three, could be made with their school guidance counsellor, when they reach grades 11 and 12. More general and relaxed conversations, beginning in grade 10 can be had between parents and teens regarding their passions and interests and how they match with their academic performance in those areas in order simply explore possible career paths. Lastly, for teens who are in grade 12 and have no clear path or idea as to what they want to pursue in their post-secondary studies or their career, the help of a therapist/counsellor, like myself, can assist them in reducing any stress, anxiety, and frustration related to such planning, help them have more clarity with where their skills and passions lie, see what are realistic and viable programs and career paths (E.g., based on their grades, skills, etc.), and lastly assist them with communicating any wants and needs to their parents, teachers, guidance counsellors, and others who play a role in their future success.

Jordon (RSW/MACP) is a Registered Social Worker  and coach at Brant Mental Health Solutions, located at 34 McMurray Street, Brantford, Ontario. Jordon holds a Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology and is a Certified Coach Practitioner. Jordon specializes in helping clients manage stress, overcome anxiety, low mood, interpersonal issues and difficult life transitions.