All of our kids will inevitably face some difficult changes in their lives. Many times, those changes aren’t their choice. Other times, they might make decisions that shift their direction away from the initial path they were paving, as they learn more about their abilities and interests.
This is how life unfolds and evolves during these critical years with our tweens and teens.
And as they encounter impasses that push them off the road they were once traveling down, we need to help our kids manage some of these hard turns and dead ends that will eventually come.
During the middle and high school years, our tweens and teens will have to navigate the painful end of friendships or romantic break-ups and the stress of finding new relationships to grow and maintain. They might get cut from a team sport they’ve played all their lives and have to find new outlets and interests to try.
They might not get the lead role in the play or that solo in the school band or choir that would have given them the best opportunity to showcase their talents and open the doors to future college options. They might audition for a special program or apply for an important job position that would lead them to their desired career and not get accepted.
Some kids will struggle with poor grades and have to change their class selections and shift their academic plans to adjust to a new area of education. Some will suffer mental or physical health conditions that impede their pursuits in one area or another and they have to explore new options while they recover. There are sports injuries that take athletes out of the game for long periods of time or for the rest of their lives and they have to let go of their dreams to play in college and beyond.
As our high schoolers begin focusing on their post-graduate endeavors, they might discover that where they wanted to go and what they hoped to do is not an option after all. Whether it’s joining the military, applying to first-choice colleges, finding a good job, or going to a trade school, sometimes our kids’ greatest plans don’t come through and they’re left grasping for what to do instead. The list can go on and on as we watch our kids suffer through some pretty rough turns and they are forced to shift into a new direction that might be frustrating, scary, and difficult for them.
This can be one of the toughest part of growing up as they have to re-route the path they had planned and explore new opportunities while often feeling disappointed, discouraged, and defeated.
Embracing The Loss Of An Expected Future Is Heartbreaking
We all have lots of experience with enduring the hardships of change and feeling the loss and pain that goes with some of them. As adults, we’ve learned how to manage these downfalls, failures, and even decisions we actively make to take a turn down unfamiliar roads that bring new purpose and personal growth.
However, our kids are often dealing with this kind of loss for the first time and it can be soul crushing to young spirits with big dreams and plans for the future. Learning that life doesn’t always go the way we plan and figuring out how to adjust and recover and move forward with new goals is a tough lesson. It’s important that we support them through these obstacles as best as we can.
During these tween and teen years, pretty much everything they go through is magnified with intense emotions and impaired cognitive understanding, thanks to their hormonal surges and their underdeveloped brain functioning. As parents, we can help our tweens and teens navigate the hard changes they experience and guide them in discovering a new direction that’s best for them.
As a parent who has had two teens that both found themselves on unexpected roads to very different destinations than they had originally envisioned for themselves, I’ve learned three of the best ways to support them during those hard transitions.
How To Best Support Your Teens When Dreams Change
Be empathetic and patient, and meet them where they are.
During the tween and teen years, our kids have BIG FEELINGS about pretty much everything, amiright? When things go wrong, they will feel strong emotions about their situation, and this is when we need to be compassionate and validate how they feel.
They might feel like a failure or they may feel rejected. They could feel incompetent, defeated, confused, sad, hurt, and discouraged. Allow them to feel whatever they are feeling, no matter how big or small you think this is because although we might have a better perspective, to them- everything is traumatic and overwhelming. Don’t dismiss or minimize what they might deem horrible and tragic.
For now, they need you to listen and affirm how hard this is for them. Comfort them with encouraging words of empathy and ease up on your expectations for them. They won’t feel motivated to do things and they might isolate for a while so be flexible and accepting and maybe give them a temporary “pass” on their chores and responsibilities while they work on accepting their new harsh reality.
They will need time to sort through their powerful feelings and understand what it all means and that may take even more time than you’d expect. Remember, they’re still building their identity and self-confidence during these hard years, and this big change may pack a pretty hard punch to their self-worth. So let them process it all before pushing them to move on and “get over it”. They won’t be in a place to figure out what to do next if they don’t fully process where they’re at now. Sometimes this takes more time than you’d like, but this is a critical stage in their healing and recovery.
At some point, they might need a gentle nudge to move forward or some tough love to get back out into the world and find new opportunities, but make sure you don’t pressure them to do this too soon. That will backfire because they won’t put in the effort or fully invest in anything until they have full closure to whatever it is they lost. Our kids need recovery time to regain their inner strength, courage, and motivation in order to explore new options they can actively pursue.
Help your kid see that everyone goes through big life changes and they are not alone.
Oftentimes, our kids are so self-centered and stuck in their own world that they aren’t able to stretch their perspectives outside of themselves.
They might feel like they are the only one who is going through something so bad and that their situation is specific only to them. It’s always encouraging to hear about other people who have been through hard things and the positive outcomes that came from them. Share your own life experiences where you had to make big changes and how difficult it was for you to re-route your life during each of them too. Then explain how those pivots on your path led to new opportunities, new people, and a better direction for you. We ALL have powerful stories full of our own struggles, failures, rejections, and transitions and we can give our kids encouragement and hope through our trials that led to bigger and better experiences in our lives because of them.
You can also point out other kids your child knows who have also been through some big changes in their lives and they also found new fulfilling pursuits they enjoy.
Remind them that everyone goes through these types of situations and although they are difficult, they will help them grow in strength, wisdom, and maturity. Encourage your kid to have hope that there are so many other options and opportunities out there for them to explore, new people to meet and friends to make, and a variety of skills to learn. This is not the end of the road, but rather a turn that will lead them down a new path they may not see now, but it will eventually appear before them as they take those steps forward. What they might think is a terrible loss can actually shift their trajectory into a more purposeful and fulfilling life. They just don’t know it yet.
Guide your kid through exploring new paths to pursue.
When your kid has had enough time to accept their current situation, it’s time to help them look into new opportunities they can pursue. That may be different programs, activities, or classes to try, new people to meet, various interests to develop, career choices to explore, jobs or colleges to apply to, or skills to learn.
This is a process, so allow them to consider their strengths, talents, and potential. You can help them identify areas to consider and offer suggestions as they make those decisions and assess their desires and abilities. They may need ongoing encouragement and specific guidance depending on how big this change is, so keep offering your support and praise them for being courageous and strong as they venture into new territory. It is so hard for our kids to try new things or accept they can’t do something they really wanted to do. This can be a long process of decision-making and trial and error, so stick with them as they meander through this murky transition.
Our kids are still discovering who they are, and what they want to do and that pressure can be consuming and confusing for them especially when they are forced to veer off the course they were creating. As they go through re-routing their path, they need to build confidence in their choices and potential. They need us to believe in their ability to succeed in whatever path they try next. They also need us to be there if or when they fail or it doesn’t work out the way they hoped it would.
These life lessons are growing the most important aspects of their character by expanding their perspective and fueling their perseverance, and both are so good for them. It’s these difficult life changes that often turn out to be the most effective way to learn more about themselves and steer their course in an even better direction. They may not know that now, but with our help, they will find out that their losses eventually can become their greatest gain. And thankfully, this applies to almost everything.