By Susan Heitler, PhD.
Posted Nov. 11, 2017
Courtesy of Psychology Today

How can families prepare students for doing well when they finish college?

Reading today’s newspaper I found three depressing themes with regard to young adults. They feel burdened by huge debts from college loans. They can’t get jobs. They’ve had to move back in with their parents after finishing college. What can parents of teenagers do to prepare their kids for the challenges they will face finding work after their education years have ended?

Parenting is the art of preparing children to be adults. That is, the goal of parenting is to put yourself out of the parenting job.

Successful adults, as defined by Freud many years ago, are folks with the ability to love and to work. That means that the more parents can do to prepare kids for love and work, the more successfully they have done their job.

Preparing kids with love

Parents prepare kids for love first and foremost by treating them lovingly. Love fills a young person’s inner bank account with self-confidence.

Love is manifest in listening and sharing. Talking supportively with teens helps them to handle the challenges they face. This is their first time heading into being grownups. Adults have been there for a while. Kids need adult guidance.

While teens and young adults will resist being told what to do, they do appreciate hearing options and gaining from your savvy about how the world works.

Most importantly, young people benefit from elders’ ability to ask them good open-ended questions (questions that begin with How, What) that facilitate their thinking through and finding solutions to their own dilemmas.

Prepare kids with people skills

The ability to talk collaboratively with folks at work begins with learning to talk collaboratively at home.

Parents therefore can have major impact in preparing their children for relationship success by modeling in their parenting methods and in their co-parenting partnership how to talk in ways that sustain loving relationships. Adults who connect with other family members in a communicative, cooperative, fight-free and interested manner are training their kids to be ready to enjoy the same, both in love and in work relationships.

Learning the skills for communication in relationships that are essential for successful marriage partnership has major economic consequences in another way as well. The vast majority of families in poverty are one-parent families. The fastest route into poverty is to get divorced. The fastest route out of poverty is to become and remain a two-parent family. Parents who model for their teenagers how to live in a cooperative couple partnership therefore are teaching their teens a core economic survival skill.

Preparing teens to work

I recall reading once that after college a graduate’s likelihood of nabbing a job has more to do with the summer and term-time work experiences on their resume than with grades or academic studies. Employers seek employees with skills and experience.

In this regard, our society in its affluent years had highly valued letting high school and college students spend their time focusing on schoolwork, sports and social time. When the economy was thriving, kids could wait until post-college to think about the world of work. Now however kids who have parttime jobs, or who use their non-school hours to hone their latent talents and interests like photography, computer programming or whatever, will have a higher likelihood of being able to earn a living when they graduate.

Since most employers want employees with experience, students who have run a lawn-mowing or website design service have a leg up on those who spent their time hanging out at the mall. Writing for a school newspaper can develop writing skills A part-time job in a store, helping in a local museum, volunteering in political campaigns, or an on-campus job all give students initial exposure to the world of work.

Learning to be entrepreneurs

A student who starts a dinner soup-making-and-delivery business, for instance, can learn the art of entrepreneurship. A lawn-mowing business can do the same.

Far too few young adults have had experience with the basics of running a business: buy low, sell high, and keep good records. Far too few have learned first-hand how to do sales and marketing.

Even a short initial experiences in small money-making activities helps young people to begin to define themselves as someone who knows how to launch a business. That self-definition can prove invaluable in a world with too few employers or job openings.

One starter trick parents can adopt. Minimize the tradition of giving kids an allowance, which can train them to expect financial handouts. Encourage students instead to earn their own spending money.

A word of warning. What motivates kids to take on work challenges? Money motivates. Progress, earning more this week than last week, motivates. Fun motivates.

What does not motivate? Punishment. Threats, like “if you don’t…. I’ll…”. Stay clear of criticism, guilt-induction. These pollute the world of work instead of inspiring enthusiastic participation.

The Ultimate Motivation

As your high school senior works through college applications, one additional thought might be worth consideration. Go ahead and get those applications sent in, but then investigate options for a gap year. A gap year is the current name for a break between high school and college, twelve months for getting out in the world working, traveling, and/or exploring eventual career directions.

One gap year student them discovered at Freshmen week she could tell right away which kids had experienced a year on their own. College students who had been out of school for a year seemed more confident about living on their own, away from home. They had more clarity about why they were in college and what they wanted to accomplish while they were there. Frittering their college years away drinking and socializing had little appeal. What was compelling for post gap-year students was being sure that by the time they graduated they would have skills and career directions.

One gap year student spent time “interning” (i.e., working without pay) in a biology lab, which convinced her that the science career she had thought she was heading for was not a good fit. Another worked in DC, which left him feeling comfortable that he understood what federal bureaucracies could and couldn’t do. Yet another worked in construction, shivering outside in the wintertime which clarified for him that preparing for an indoor desk job where he could stay warm would merit his focused attention once he got to college.

In sum, alas, times have changed economically all over the globe.

Unfortunately, the global economy is likely to get worse, not better, for our teenagers’ generation.

Parents who look ahead realistically at the economy’s shrinkage will be most likely to succeed in preparing their high school and college age kids sufficiently for the world they will enter as adults.


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler’s most recent project is a website, that teaches the skills for marriage success.