Teens and Future Orientation

A common conversation between parents and teens has to do with future aspirations and desires, most of which are usually focused around the teen's desire to move rather quickly and easily into the adult world, often without a realistic view of what that would mean or what it would entail. For example, the teen who is unhappy with some of his parents' restrictions and rules might say something along the lines of "When I'm 18, I'm moving out and getting my own apartment and then I'll come in at night whenever I want. Not only that, but I can do whatever I want when I want and you won't be able to tell me what to do."

A less rebellious example is the teen girl who is overheard telling her friends about how things will be when she arrives at college next month. The conversation goes something like "It's going to be great! I'll have new malls to shop in, and I'll buy some new furniture for my apartment. Oh, I'll need my cell phone and a newer car too, because I want to be able to drive out of town when I want too." In both of these situations the teen has a desire to live in a fashion that is decidedly adult, yet they haven't really thought through what it would take to make these things happen.

In the first example, it is likely that this youngster doesn't have any idea as to what it takes to rent an apartment, pay the security deposit and first and last month's rent, and then pay the other associated bills such as utilities, phone, cable, etc. If his parents tried to reason with him about this, he would probably say something along the lines of "I'll get a roommate and a job. It'll be cake!" The second example is even more unrealistic. Using a common phrase, we could say that this young lady "thinks money grows on trees!" Most likely she is used to having things when she wants them and has had little experience in dealing with budgeting, understanding the link between work and spending, and planning for future needs.

In each of these situations the teen has a fantasy about living in the adult world, yet there is a wide gulf between the fantasy and the realistic steps necessary to make the fantasy a reality. This is a common problem for teens, and one that exasperates parents a great deal. What's good is that the fantasy signifies the teen's desire to move forward and place himself in an adult world where he will be independent, make his own decisions, and take care of himself. This is a natural adolescent desire and one that parents need to encourage. The problem is that teens often haven't learned to link responsibility, investigation, planning, and realistic thinking to the fantasy. In other words, there is little or no appreciation of the process necessary to move from one point to the other.

The parent's job then is to facilitate a learning process that will help the adolescent associate future goals with the necessary steps to bring them to fruition while encouraging the desire for independence. To do this successfully, it is necessary to help the teen fully investigate future desires and goals, facilitate the process of working toward the goals, use hypothetical thinking to examine and evaluate progress, and encourage responsibility and accountability both currently and in the future. Let's go through each of these in more detail.

Promote Investigation

When teens voice their desire to pursue something that sounds rather fantastic, parents often fall into the habit of lecturing them as to the non-feasibility of their fantasy. Using the example above, the parents of the young man who wants to move out on his own may lapse into a lengthy discussion of how much money it would take to get an apartment, what kind of job would be needed to pay all the expenses involved, and how unlikely it is that the teen could handle these responsibilities. Even worse the parents might move into a more negative conversation about how irresponsible their son already is, how he can't even keep his room clean or remember his chores, or take the right books to school, and so on. Of course the young man who is on the receiving end of such a discourse would react by either getting quite angry and voicing his anger, leaving the room in the middle of the discussion, or simply tuning his parents out while they work themselves into a full-scale assault.

So how might you handle this same situation differently? Here's what I would suggest. Even though you know your teen would not be able to handle the responsibilities associated with moving out on his own yet, you can encourage adult thinking by helping him investigate what it would take to make the fantasy a reality. Start by helping him make a list of the steps needed to embark on a full-scale investigation. Perhaps he can get online and look up apartment hunters in town and get a listing of current offerings and rental feels. Have him call some apartment complexes and ask about leases, security deposits, first and last month's rents, etc. Then help him find out about utilities, cable and telephone fees. Assist him in constructing a budget for moving in expenses and another budget for estimated ongoing monthly expenses. Help him brainstorm all the possible expenses involved such as food, laundry, car payments, insurance, car repairs, gas, health insurance, school expenses (if he's considering college), entertainment, and so forth. Then help him investigate wages for various types of jobs for which he has the qualifications. Compare the expenses to the estimated income and let him draw his own conclusions.

By using this method as opposed to the lecture route you are accomplishing two goals at the same time. First, you are making the points you would have made in your lecture, only this way they will be heard because your son will have the experience of learning the information first hand. Secondly, you are encouraging his desire for independence while also giving him the tools to think about the steps involved in making his adult fantasy an adult reality that includes responsibility and hard work. By assisting him in his investigation you are telling him that you understand his desire for independence and encourage it, however, you want him to be able to link his desires with thoughtful action that is reality-based.

Evaluate and Facilitate

The next step is to evaluate the desire against the necessary steps and decide if adjustments are necessary. Using the same scenario, the young man may find that the jobs available to him at his current level of education are unappealing, pay too little, or fall below his assessment of his capabilities and future career aspirations. He may also realize that there is a lot more work involved in being self-supporting than he had previously surmised. The evaluation of the information obtained during the investigation is part of the process and should set the stage for further conversation between the parent and teen to either modify the original goal, change the goal altogether, or begin working on the goal now. For example, the young man may decide that what he really wants is to go to college and putting up with the current level of rules and restrictions is not really that difficult for several more years as he works toward making the grades necessary to get into the school of his choice. Or, he may decide that he would like to do further investigation into career choices and career training. Maybe he has a vocational interest that he would like to pursue now. Or he may decide that he wants to continue pursuing the goal to move out when he's 18 and he would like to work and save money now toward that end. Your role is to help him thoroughly evaluate his findings through discussion and further investigation if needed, and then help him lay out the steps to the new or adjusted goal. If he decides he wants to get a job now, then you are back in the investigation phase which is to begin looking for job opportunities, figuring out how many hours of work per week is feasible while in school, assessing transportation and gas needs, and so on. If college is the goal, then you would help your son begin investigating admission requirements, college expenses, and so forth. The same would apply to career planning and vocational school.

Use Hypothetical Thinking

In the course of the investigation and evaluation, you can assist your teen in making use of hypothetical thinking as a way of examining and comparing different possibilities. As the young man above works diligently toward making his original desire to move out come to fruition, you can prod him to expand his investigation into larger areas of adult concern and future planning. For example, you could suggest that although he might be able to make ends meet by getting a roommate and working two jobs, he might also want to consider the long-term prospects of going to work full-time at the age of 18 instead of going to school and working part-time so he can train himself for work that will net more income eventually. What happens if he can't find a roommate or the roommate moves out unexpectedly? How will he feel in five years if he's still having to work 60 hours a week for minimum income and has no time for other activities? In other words, help him expand his vision to the wider future, not just the single initial goal of gaining some independence.

This is a tricky area because it is easy to fall back into the lecturing mode. It's important to facilitate hypothetical thinking with questions rather than with a lot of statements. Let the teen think about and ponder the questions. He'll ask for your input as he needs it. Even if he doesn't seem to be interested in these questions, you have planted a seed and he will revisit them, especially as he becomes better acquainted with the work associated with reaching his goals.

Encourage Responsibility and Accountability

Encouraging responsibility and accountability is a parenting practice that should be employed throughout a child's life. In terms of exploring the future, strong habits of responsible behavior and accountability for one's actions will increase the adolescent's capacity to realistically assess future desires against the steps necessary to make them a reality. Children who have not had a lot of practice in problem-solving, decision making, and dealing with the consequences of their actions will have more difficulty linking fantasized goals with realistic action. In view of this, there are several key parenting ideas to keep in mind as children are moving through late preschool and middle childhood years. These are as follows:

Don't be a permissive parent. Let children experience the consequences of their actions when possible. Establish rules and consequences that are reasonable and be consistent in enforcing them.
Avoid overindulgence. Buying everything a child wants is deadly when it comes to understanding the link between hard work and fulfilling desires. They learn to engage in magical thinking, not to mention that they become accustomed to feeling entitled to having more than they earn. This was the problem with the young woman going to college described above.
Educate children and teens about managing money. Encourage savings accounts, talk about budgets for necessities and wants, and create or take advantage of opportunities where children can earn money based on work. At the same time, be careful not to set up situations for children to fail with money. If a teen is expected to make a car payment, pay the car insurance, and buy his or her clothes, then basically they are expected to work on an adult schedule while also going to high school. The process of earning money should begin slowly and increase over time, always keeping in mind that you want your child to succeed and attend to educational goals first.
Begin teaching problem-solving skills and cooperation during early childhood. Discuss and negotiate solutions
Initiate future planning and anticipation during middle childhood by teaching the skills of investigation, thinking ahead, delaying immediate gratification to reach a future goal, exploring possibilities and anticipating problems. This process can apply to simple things such as signing up for a soccer team.

Thinking Ahead

As you work with your teen on future goals and desires, keep in mind that the consideration of adult roles and activities is a natural and necessary development during middle to late adolescence. Usually beginning around the ages of 15 or 16 and extending into the early 20's, the transition to adulthood is a primary preoccupation. Parents need to take an active role in facilitating thinking about the future and making plans that will give their teen the greatest opportunity for success. As you work with your teen, keep in mind that he or she is an individual with their own special talents and capabilities, not to mention desires and aspirations. Help your teen explore what lies ahead with an open mind. We all have dreams for our children and with very good intentions, but it is important to serve as a guide and facilitator rather than director while investigating future possibilities. You will find that if you take this approach, your teen will be more receptive to your suggestions and ideas. Moreover, they are more likely to appreciate your wealth of experience and make use of it. Happy exploring!

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