You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” – Dr. Seuss 

How do you help your student choose authentically?

As parents, it can be challenging to let go. We want to help them make decisions about their future that we think are best, to guide them toward being what we envision as successful, functional adults. When our students want to make different choices from us, our anxiety spikes and the urge to jump in can be irresistible. While it’s important to give your children wise counsel, it’s easy to cross the line from advice to pressure.

Remember, you as parents have needs in this college process and are going through your own experience alongside them. Maybe you’re worried about losing their company after they graduate, or about their safety when they leave the nest. Perhaps your thoughts turn to their career livelihood and ability to succeed without your support. It’s that anxiety about your own needs and your overconcern for them that can influence your student in unhelpful ways.

Your student may want to pursue a major that you don’t agree with or understand, or to go to a college across the country, when you’d prefer they stay closer to home. Before you pile on the pressure or outright forbid them to make a particular choice, press pause. Consider why you’re reacting in such a strong way. Will this choice really ruin their future? What is behind their aspiration? What deeper need of theirs does it speak to?

College offers students one of the first opportunities for them to make big decisions about their future, and letting them forge their own path prepares them to make bigger and better decisions as an adult.

Authentic Choices

Their choices only need to make sense to them!

In order for your student to be fulfilled during and after their college years, the ultimate decision about their future must be theirs alone, so help them choose authentically. That doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to share your opinions, set boundaries (particularly around the cost of college), or provide guidance, but by separating and managing your needs separate from theirs, your student will be more likely to succeed and be able to identify what they really want.

Feelings of pressure

Consider the pressure your student may feel – intentional or unintentional – from you and other adults in their lives. If everyone in your family is a doctor, engineer, teacher, or went to a particular college or university, it may be difficult for them to see the line between what they want and what others want for them.  It’s hard to imagine what you can’t see. Even if you aren’t purposefully pressuring your child to follow in your footsteps, they still may have a tough time imagining a different future for themselves.

Avoiding conflict from family

In many families, it’s normal for loved ones to weigh in on every decision, and some students will just go with the flow to avoid conflict. Check in with your student (and yourself). The major they’re considering – whose idea was it? Are they constantly justifying their actions, to you or to themselves? This could sound something like, “I owe it to myself to try this thing, since Dad always said I’d be good at it” or “I can get this degree and then do what I really want.” Are they excited about their major or the college they’re considering, or do they feel like it’s something expected of them?

Really understanding the choice

If you don’t understand their motivations or desires, take the time to ask them – and really listen.  You don’t have to be fully on board with their decision in order for it to be the right one for them at this moment. Remember: 33% percent of college students change their major at least once. After college, the trend holds: by the age of 35, 25% of workers have held five or more jobs. The lesson? Your student doesn’t need to have everything figured out the day they move into their dorm.

Ultimately, the only person that needs to fully understand your student’s choices is them. If they’re living out someone else’s choices, they can probably fake happiness for a while—but it won’t last. And ultimately, isn’t happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment what we want for our children? The best thing you can do is to encourage them to continually ask the question: “What do I want? ”

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