Helping young people to make decisions about their future

Elizabeth Wright

Elizabeth is a Paralympic medalist, Author, Speaker, and co-founder of schools programme Resilience Wellbeing Success. Passionate about developing self-belief in our young people, Elizabeth uses storytelling and interactivity to build a rapport with young people, engaging them with a sense of fun and humour. Her aim is to leave young people believing in their own potential and capabilities to achieve their goals - if she could do it, then anyone can.

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The morning that I turned to Mum and Dad as a 13 year old and said, “I am going to swim at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games,” was the morning I made the most sure, concise, and driven decision of my life. My entire life. In that moment, as a freshly-minted teen, I knew what my purpose was going to be for the next several year, the confidence I had in this decision was overwhelming, and the determination I had to work hard for it inspiring. Yes, my teen self inspires me now, because that confidence and determination is special, and most people struggle to cultivate it, not least teenagers.

This brings me to the immediate point of this article. How can we help young people make decisions about their life, when most of the time they have no idea where they want to go, or they know where they want to go, but feel obliged to go in a different direction? Ohhh, the confusion can be crippling. So crippling, in fact, that when we ask teens what careers they want to pursue so that they can pick the most appropriate courses for their future, they freeze like a deer in headlights, or gape like a fish, or act like wild thing, tearing at their hair and bemoaning being made to be a “grown up”. Is it too much pressure to expect a teen to know what they want in their future, and is it okay if their dreams and hopes do not align with the dreams and hopes of the parents or teachers? I say yes and yes to both of those questions.

I can honestly say that at the age of 13 I knew myself better then I know myself now. At 13 my identity was fixed for the next seven years - I was a swimmer, and not just any swimmer, but an elite swimmer, with everything that that entails. The moment I retired from swimming"We expect kids to know who they are and be clear on what they want out of life." I became like every other late teen / early 20s kind of creature. I had no idea who I was or who I wanted to be. I spent two years working part time and saving to travel, so I could “find myself”. We expect kids, from earlier and earlier ages, to know who they are and be clear on what they want out of life. Of course this is way too much pressure. As much as it’s okay for a kid to know exactly what they want to do when they start “adulting,” it is also okay if a 16 year old tells you “you know what, I have no idea what I want to do when I leave school.”

Another debilitating factor of deciding your future is having the pressure to conform to family and / or school expectations. This pressure can sometimes be too much. I spoke at a school recently where, after my talk to 6th Formers, a girl approached me, with her friend in tow. Hesitantly, she asked me if she could ask for some advice, I said of course. Suddenly this outpouring of confusion, self-doubt, anger, and frustration tumbled my way - this girl had a passion for a particular subject, and while her interest to pursue this passion fell one way, her parents wanted her to pursue it in another way, a way that could lead her to a diluted experience of this particular subject.

Feeling trapped, but in her final year of school, she felt she had nowhere else"The pressure of careers can sometimes be too much." left to turn, and she asked me to help her figure out her goals. I felt for her, and while I couldn’t make any decisions on her behalf, I could at least guide her to get some support in making this crucial decision.

So how can we help our young people make decisions about their future, without making their decisions about their future for them?

Firstly, let’s let kids and teens be kids and teens. We seem to be thrusting our young people into being adults earlier and earlier, and this isn't fair to them in any way shape or form. Let’s enable them to explore and have adventures, and make discoveries about themselves, before we ask them to make crucial decisions that could impact their lives forever.

Secondly, instead of thrusting our own ideas and expectations on them, let’s be a sounding board for them. The advice I gave the 6th former was to find a teacher that she trusted, and ask them if she could just explore with them what she wants for the future, without judgement, and without bias in any way.

Ultimately, we have to trust that these young people we care about and love, can make the right decisions for themselves about their futures and ensure that we give them the support and encouragement that they so desperately need.     

How do you help pupils to explore their futures? Let us know below.

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