Whether teens realize it or not, they set goals every single day. From going to the movies with their friends, to planning a school project, to getting in some extra workouts to try out for the varsity team. The question is, do they know they’re doing this, and do they know how to do it in a way that actually helps them achieve their goal. So, you might be thinking, how can I help my teen set goals effectively, and help them improve their chances of success?
Goal setting is a critical life skill
As adults, we understand that goal setting is an important life skill that can make your days productive and build your confidence as you make progress towards your goals. We hear stories all the time about successful people, and how they regularly set goals. And we would love it if our own kids would “get it” and see how important it is to set goals effectively.
But as parents, we know we walk a very fine line between helping and nagging. We want our teens to set goals and be successful in life, and at the same time not spend every waking moment nagging them about what they should be doing. And the reality is that goal setting is not a skill that we “mature into”. As a consultant and project manager, I worked with plenty of staff that had just graduated college who had no idea how to put a plan together for their work, or even think about the skills that they wanted to build to get them to the next level at the company. So I figured, I better start figuring out how I could help my own teens, and hopefully other teens, learn this valuable skill.
Stepping stones to happiness
When I wanted to help my teens set goals, the first few conversations were more me talking and them pretending to listen. They had not taken any time to even think about what they really wanted, so a conversation about goals seemed foreign to them, as they could not relate to it. I realized that while I had been thinking about this for them for a while, we couldn’t really start talking about goals until I gave them the chance to think about what they really wanted to do… in life in general, but also in smaller chunks of time, like in the next year.
So I backtracked a little and started to talk to them about vision boards, and how much fun it would be to spend some time thinking about their big dreams. While they worked on their own vision boards, I worked on mine too. That way they could see that this was not just something else I was making them do. Taking the time to look up photos that represented what they wanted got them all fired up about what those goals meant to them.
A lot of teens haven’t taken the time to figure out what is it that THEY really want… So make sure when you talk to them, they understand that their goals start with THEIR own WHY – this is about what they want, not what they think their parents, teachers or coaches want for them. Like I did with my teens, go back to doing a vision board exercise. Or if they’re not into the visuals, they can create a bucket list. For a little guidance, maybe think of 1-2 things that they want to: achieve, create, do, have, give, or experience. It doesn’t have to be complete, it just needs to start with their gut feeling.
A goal without a plan is just a wish
Working on a vision board or daydreaming about your big goals can be lots of fun. Sometimes all it takes is disconnecting from the phone, xbox and TV long enough to have time to think. But then comes the tough part. How do you describe a goal in a way that makes it clear what you actually need to get started? You need an action plan!
The biggest questions I get about goal setting are related to how to take action. So here’s a few tips they can follow to work on that:
- Make their goals small – I don’t mean to encourage your teens to go for small things. I mean help them break big goals into smaller pieces. If their goal is to go to engineering school, great! But they’re only a freshman. So how do they start working towards that?
- Keep the timeline short – What can they do now, in the next 6 to 12 months? Is there a robotics project they can get done? Do you want to build a software program? Decide a mini-goal that builds towards that BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)!
- Let teens take ownership of their plan – Help them brainstorm, but let them create the plan and work the plan. Help them Google what it takes to work on the software project, or what is good training to get better at tennis. But let them read through that and decide for themselves what their plan will look like.
At the beginning of this article I said that I was going to explain how to help your teens with their goals. But now I’m telling you that your teen needs to work the goals on their own. Our role as parents is not to give them their goals, or a plan to work them. Teens are totally capable of doing this on their own with a little guidance. Our role as parents is to be supportive and encouraging while our teens work through their plans, and help get them unstuck.
Parents need to learn to read the signs
What happens when the teen misses some activities and starts falling behind? You will need to figure out what’s missing from the success equation to help your teen think through how to get over that challenge, and get moving again.
When you can pinpoint the emotion you are seeing in your teenager, you’ll be able to identify what is missing.
- Confusion means their vision isn’t clear.
- You will notice anxiety when they’re missing skills to get started.
- If they don’t understand the need or feel an incentive to follow the plan, they’ll procrastinate.
- When resources, like time, or money, or support, or even a skill, are missing, your teen will get frustrated.
- If there’s no action plan, they may start something, realize it’s not what they need, then stop that and start something else. That’s going to lead to burnout.
Start a conversation to help your teen stay on track
The good news is that you can use this grid to know what to focus on to change the situation, and help your teen achieve SUCCESS! To do this, we have to stay in our supportive role… so here’s some useful questions that could help start a conversation with your teen about what they need to get unstuck:
- Should we go back to the brainstorm about your dreams? Or do another one?
- Can you think of a picture that makes you happy thinking about the future?
- Do you feel that you are missing some skill or knowledge?
- Should we look for training or a book?
- Do you want to review why this goal is important to you?
- Let’s chat about the celebration for when you complete your goal!
- Do you have enough time to work on this goal?
- Do you need to revisit the timeline?
- Is there a book, video or article that can help you get started?
False Starts and Stops:
- Let’s take a step back from being busy! What’s the first step? Let’s write it down.
- Let’s brainstorm all the activities we can come up with, and worry about prioritizing them later
No more helicopter parenting!
One important thing I realized while walking my own teens through vision boards and goals was that they were eager to take ownership of their goals and their plan. I had to make sure to stay in a supportive role, and avoid micromanaging. I know kids younger than middle school need some hand holding when it comes to goals, but once our kids get to 7th grade or so, they will stay motivated about their work if they’re following their own plan.
By the time our kids are teens, it’s time to let them drive the process. It’s going to be difficult, like when you had to wait 10 minutes for your preschooler to tie their own shoes and you were already running late. But trust me, they’ll get so much more out of goal setting when they decide the goal, and how they want to work towards it. In our house, it has even changed from blank stares when talking about goals, to having regular conversations about their goals, their plans, and how things are going for them.
We hope that this information is useful to you and your teen! Check out our paper resources for planning goals and projects, but if your teen is more into apps, you can also try our Teen SMART Goals app on iOS.
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