If your child is struggling with a lack of direction in their career, watching from the sidelines can be frustrating — at best. The tension can quickly escalate if you don’t agree with their choices. And it can become downright painful to witness if your child wrestles with self-confidence, self-esteem or self-imposed pressure.
Parenting is a balancing act. You want to provide support — and, at the same time, encourage independence. As your children grow older, and the stakes become higher, finding that equilibrium can be a tremendous challenge. If you find yourself becoming emotionally entangled in their career journey, you’re not alone. Parents and kids are far more open with one another than in generations past. With it, comes a risk of knowing — and, often, feeling — too much. To make matters worse, your well-intentioned concern for their future doesn’t always translate into well-received advice. How can you maintain your own sanity, while providing the “just-right” amount of support to a child struggling to land on their own professional feet?
1. Create — and maintain — healthy emotional boundaries
It’s part of the parenting experience: When your child is in pain, you feel it. As the saying goes, you’re only as happy as your least happy child. And when a child is experiencing career challenges, chances are, no one is very happy. Empathizing with your child helps you understand the situation from their vantage point. But it’s important to not get swallowed up in their emotions. Depending on which emotions your child is expressing (fear, anger, sadness, panic, hopelessness), as much as you can, find ways to maintain your objectivity. They will be looking to you — and will need you — to be strong, an anchor. Try to not let their emotions activate your own.
2. Process your own emotions, without judgment.
Sure, you’re a parent. But because you’re also a human being, you’ll have thoughts and emotions of your own. You might feel annoyed if you don’t think your child is putting enough effort into their job search, angry if they’re being too picky or nervous if they can’t seem to get called back for a second interview. Not only is your perspective different than your child’s, but you carry the weight of their struggles — and often react to their reactions. It’s important to notice, honor and process your own feelings. Negative emotions left to fester can turn ugly.
- Find support for yourself, whether a friend, family member or professional with whom you’re comfortable sharing your thoughts.
- Maintain your health and wellbeing (through proper diet, sleep and exercise)
- Consider how — and why — your child’s actions are stirring these emotions in you; is there a way you can widen your perspective or reframe the situation?
- Another reflection: Think about what are you saying “yes” to and what are you saying “no” to? Blurred boundaries typically arise when we are saying “yes” to something (taking on something) that we don’t want to / that isn’t ours to take on.
It might be hard not to feel a twinge of envy if you run into a neighbor whose daughter is already climbing up the career ladder and just bought her first condo (while your son is living in your basement and holding down a minimum-wage part-time job). You might feel pressure or even shame at family functions, where people make insinuations about your child’s career (or lack thereof). Try to remember that everyone’s career journey takes a different form, and at a different pace. And don’t add insult to injury by beating yourself up for feeling what you feel!
3. Validate, but don’t focus on your child’s negative emotions.
It can be hard to know where to draw the line between offering positive encouragement and setting realistic expectations for your child. Lean too far in one direction, you risk enabling them; lean too far in the other, you fuel their frustration. Taking a balanced approach is critical. If you’re only validating negative feelings, you’re (perhaps unwittingly) condoning blame. Pointing at external factors — “that incompetent college guidance counselor … “the unfair interviewer” … “the terrible job market” — feeds the negative energy. Not only does it put you at risk of being swept up in their emotions, it limits forward motion. Your child stands to gain far more when you encourage them to build their own accountability.
Noting and acknowledging your child’s emotions about their career struggles can open the door to conversations around new, creative ways to move forward. New avenues can open up once your child no longer feels like they have to “prove” their emotions to you.
4. Lend support.
While there are no magic formulas, parents can support their child in a variety of ways, depending on their willingness to accept it. Pick up on their cues. Forcing a conversation when they’re not in the mood to talk is rarely productive. As a parent, you likely have a limited knowledge base in navigating career challenges; however, chances are, you’re pretty resourceful when it comes to finding support. If your child can’t seem to figure out what direction they want to pursue, an abilities assessment, like the Highlands Ability Battery, can provide data-backed insights that can help guide their decision.
Assuming your child seems receptive to your ideas, help them devise systems that work for them. If your child is a linear thinker, she might love your assistance in creating an excel spreadsheet to track her contacts or job opportunities. If your child is motivated by progress, help him set one incremental goal per day. If you notice that your conversations with your child have plateaued, it might be time to reach out to a third party for support. Encourage them to seek outside input from a certified, professional career coach, who can offer objective expertise. Together, you and your child can research the available options, and decide which makes the most sense to pursue.