Teens & career anxiety: the pressure to have it all figured out
“Everyone but me knows what they want to do with their lives.”
The young woman who said this to me was 18 years old.
She had completed Grade 12 and, although she was a solid student, she decided to take a year off because she couldn’t decide what to do after high school. She was very nervous about making the wrong choice, so she didn’t make any choice at all (other than not to attend post-secondary immediately after high school).
This was probably the best choice at the time. However, when I met with her almost a year later, she still didn’t know what she wanted to do, and she still had feelings of extreme anxiousness when she tried to make a decision. That’s when she and her mom reached out to me.
Together, we did a few assessments and had some great, open discussions. I provided her with resources, step-by-step instructions, and encouraged her to follow-up. It was important for her to take a step towards something. The old adage “a journey of a million miles starts with one step” was her challenge. She just needed to break through those feelings of anxiousness and overwhelm that were stopping her in her tracks, and take the first step to try something out.
The practical part of this engagement was important. She needed someone with expertise to help her find the right information and apply it to her situation.
But it was just as important for me to reassure her that she’s normal.
Disclaimer: I am not, nor do I pretend to be, a professional therapist. I have training and experience working with teens in a variety of stressful situations, including non-violent crisis and suicide intervention, but I am not a certified therapist and it’s not what I focus on in my career sessions with students. While I recognise anxiety is a common problem with teens, I’m not referring to anxiety disorders in this post, but rather normal feelings of stress and anxiousness that can block people from making decisions and taking action.
I also recognize that fulfilling careers and good mental health often go hand-in-hand. The connection between the two is a big focus at this year's Cannexus, Canada's largest bilingual national career development conference. One of the sessions, called "Career & Mental Health: closer than you think", discussed the role of career development as a mental health intervention, and was one of the most popular sessions at the event. That's because career professionals see the connection every day.
Normalizing not knowing
Not knowing what you want to do with your life is scary, but it’s normal -- especially at 18! Yet many teens feel like they are the only ones who don’t have it all figured out. They put immense pressure on themselves to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
Some young people may be comparing themselves with others who say they know. These other people may actually know, or—more likely—they just say it because they feel they should know.
The “I’m the only one who doesn’t know” statement, or some version of it, has been said to me by students as young as 16.
Can you imagine feeling like you should have it all figured out at 16?!
Other students I work with may not compare themselves to their friends. All they know is they don’t know, and it makes them nervous.
Feelings of powerlessness and overwhelm
Even if they don’t read the paper or listen to the news, young people hear it: doom and gloom forecasts for employment, the changing landscape and future of work, the competition for jobs.
They might not always act like it, but they know it’s tough out there, and they’re scared.
They may be feeling hopeless for the future, and helpless to do anything about it. Or they may be trying out things, but feel like they’re spinning their wheels and getting nowhere. They may feel powerless, like it’s out of their control, and anything they do won’t make a difference anyway.
The bottom line: many students are confused, anxious, and overwhelmed by the weight of having to make (what they think) is a decision that will shape the trajectory of the rest of their life.
A healthy balance
We need to “de-dramacize” that feeling of impending doom, and let them know one bad decision now won’t ruin your life forever. But we also need to impart that, yes, some of the decisions you make now are important and should be given proper care and attention.
So although one bad decision now might not be the end of the world, it could lead to choosing the wrong school, in which case they will need to transfer, which costs time and money. Or they may choose a program where they lack interest and focus, and get poor or even failing grades. And if they want to change programs, then that will also cost time and money. Or they may go through 6 or more years of university and discover they don't want to be a dentist after all.
Any way you slice it, university is an expensive place to wander around and hang out until you have a career epiphany. Let’s not sugar coat it -- bad decisions now may have some serious ramifications.
So it’s a balancing act between not scaring them silly, and motivating them into action.
Knowledge is power
So how do we motivate them?
By giving them knowledge.
“Knowledge is power” is so fitting here. When we provide young people with the right tools, resources, information, and expertise to help them discover potential career(s), it will help to break through the overwhelm and indecision, and spur them into action.
When we provide reassurance, coupled with practical, step-by-step information, they start to see it’s manageable, that it’s possible to figure this thing out. The pieces start to fall into place. They feel more in control of the process. They know what they need to do, and they feel empowered to move forward with it.
That’s why the career exploration page on my website talks about your student having the knowledge and the motivation to reach their goal.
And, an important by-product of going through a deliberate, step-by-step process of career decision-making is that, at a relatively young age, teens learn how to make important career-related decisions. Since most people change careers a few times in their lifetime, this is a great life skill to learn early on!
What I always keep in mind while working with students is, despite how they might come off sometimes, they want to know.
So, parents, I know you want them to know but, you can rest assured, they want to know too.
They just might need some help to find out what it is.