How To Support Your Teen On The Road Less Traveled

Posted on January 13th, 2015

How To Support Your Teen On The Road Less TraveledCaroline S. Rains, MA, IMF #69569Marriage and Family Therapist InternSupervised by Angie Burch, LMFT #44299

“Mom, I think I want to not go back to high school, like, um, ever.”

This has to be on the top five list of things that parents of teenagers dread hearing. It would be easy to understand my mother going into a tailspin, mentally chronicling a series of dead-end jobs and poverty, but somehow she maintained a zen-like calm that most parents could only have hoped to emulate.

I had just dropped a bombshell, something that teenagers love to do to their parents and when parents hear these things it’s easy to understand why they get anxious – after all, a parent has invested years trying to give their child the opportunities and guidance that will help their child make the right sort of choices. When a teen proposes that they take an alternative route or that somehow they are going to need to take a detour to a finish line many parents can’t help but see failure, but the road less traveled doesn’t have to mean doom. How a parent reacts to their teen’s revelation that they are taking their own path can greatly impact how a teen will relate to their parents’ in their final years of their childhood.

If you are a parent reading this and your teen has just told you that they are thinking of putting off college, joining the armed forces, or that they are considering any other alternative path that perhaps you haven’t chosen for them, what can you do?

Step 1: Breathe. Take several breaths if necessary. Hyperventilating won’t help you or your teen, and turning the color of a tomato is a sure sign to a child of any age that their parent is about to combust. Breathing also gives you time to listen, which brings me to Step 2.

Step 2: Your teen has reasons for why they are thinking what they are thinking and before you pass judgment it will likely pay to really hear them out. The 19 year-old who wants to get married at first blush may sound naive and foolish, but listening to them will give you insight to what is motivating them and that will give you a way to relate to them on a real level rather than just judging them.

Step 3: You don’t have to make a decision, or even say something definitive following any sort of bombshell your teen lays on you. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I’m going to have to think about that,” or some sort of equivalent. Your teen probably won’t like that as teens have a tendency to like clear, definitive sorts of statements so they know where they stand. It may drive them a little batty to have to wait to find out what you’re going to say, but it won’t kill them – and it also won’t potentially hurt your relationship with your teen the way making a pronouncement like, “Are you crazy?” or “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” will.

Step 4: Use your relationship with your teen as a tool to understanding them. The reason I believe my mother didn’t flip when I said I wanted to drop out of high school was likely because she saw it coming. She knew I was miserable in school. I was a high achieving student who also was struggling with dyslexia. My school wasn’t used to providing accommodations and I was disenchanted with the opportunities I saw there. My mom and dad both knew I was in pain, so when I said I wanted to leave, they knew it was because I wanted to get out of a hurtful situation, not because I was being impulsive.

Step 5: When in doubt, ask for time. If your teen comes to you with a big plan that you see as leading to a big problem, don’t tell them no, just ask for time. Just like in Step 3 where your teen wants an answer right away, your teen won’t like you asking for 3 months or so to help them find an alternative solution or to help them flesh out their plans, but they will likely tolerate it, especially if you show you are taking them seriously.

Step 6: Let go. I know, I know, can you as a parent ever really let go? Maybe it would be better to say, “step back.” Let your teen fail or flourish. It may be time to hope that all the morals, values, and love you instilled in your teen throughout their childhood shines through.

As for me, I’m glad to say that both my parents listened to me when I told them my plan to leave high school. They heard my plan to take my proficiency exam and to enroll in community college. In the end, I earned my BA two years early because I started community college in my junior year and then transferred to a four year university. My parents had reservations, but they trusted me and gave me an opportunity, and in the end it paid off. Not all risks teens make will end as well, but often times forcing a teen to stay on the tried and true path can also end equally as bad. As a parent you likely found that forging your own way was the best bet for meeting the demands of your job, community, relationships, and children. Let’s see what your teen can do when they forge their own path in life.


Has there ever been a time when your child took the road less traveled and it turned out well?

Could you let go if you thought your teen’s decision was going to turn out negatively?

How do you cope when you see your teen in pain or struggling with a given situation?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.

9 thoughts on “How To Support Your Teen On The Road Less Traveled

  1. Lindsay Smith

    Thank you for sharing your story about taking a road less traveled! I like the tips you give about how we can handle it if our teens want to take an alternative path. I especially like the point about not having to give an answer right away. It can really help to take time to think through things before responding to our teens and it’s a great reminder that it is ok to do this!

    1. Caroline Rains

      Thanks, Lindsay! I know some teens can be pretty good at having all the answers, but i know as an adult I struggle to find the right thing to say at times. I know it has served me well in working with clients to sometimes say, “Jeez, I have no idea, can I think that over?” It’s too much pressure to always need to know the right response!

  2. Joy

    Great article! So often, we just jump to debating what is the best solution without first fully understanding each person’s perspective of the problem. If we strive first to truly understand each other, then a final solution that everyone can agree on is much easier reached.

  3. Carol Satterlee

    I so appreciate what Caroline has shared. It begs parents to practice patience, understanding and a willingness to “let go” of their own specific expectations in order to give an opportunity for their teen to share what they’ve been thinking of and exploring. If we “react” with instant judgment and without a willingness to sit and listen to how they’re making these decisions, we close off opportunities for them to want us for guidance, perhaps even collaboration and problem solving. This can be an amazing opportunity for teens/young adults to experience natural consequences to choices they make, resilience and character building and for us as parents, how unconditional love and support will keep them connected to you.

    1. Caroline Rains

      Carol, I think you make some great points about how reaction impacts the relationship with the child. I’m also a big proponent of natural consequences. What a paradigm shift when the parent removes themselves from having to rescue the discipline and lets life hand the consequences when appropriate!

  4. parisa

    i love the tips. hope i remember them in 10 years. now tell me how to deal with my 3 year old’s tantrums… thank you 🙂

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