It can be daunting to start talking about careers with your child. To help you make these conversations productive we have put together ideas from a panel of neuroscientists and psychologists who specialise in understanding teenagers and how to communicate with them. 

Dr John Coleman, Dr Rebecca McKelvey, Professor Geraint Rees and Dr Genevieve von Lob have provided their top tips on how to have productive and supportive conversations with your children about their career choices.

  1. Nothing’s set in stone: Teenagers can easily shut down or withdraw if they feel pressured in a conversation and one in five (20%) parents said if they do start a conversation about careers, it leaves them no further forward than they were before.

    Dr Rebecca reminds us that “it’s increasingly common for people to pursue a number of different careers these days, and the main thing is to take the first step.”

    Dr Genevieve suggests “Respect your child’s need to have some control over their life, and remember that we all want to feel we have a sense of autonomy, that we have made the decision which is right for us. Children can experience feelings of anxiety when thinking about the challenges of entering the world of work and making choices they know will affect their adult lives. Be supportive and encourage them to give whatever career path they choose a go, while reminding them that any decision they take is not set in stone.”

  2. Find the right environment: Many parents have found the best scenarios in which to have positive conversations with their teens are outside the home, for example, when they are taking a walk outdoors. 

    Dr Genevieve says “Many parents feel more comfortable speaking to their child outside of their home environment. A helpful reminder of how going for a walk can help establish a greater sense of intimacy and openness. Consider whether your child might feel more comfortable speaking in a side-by-side setting – such as sitting in the passenger seat while you are driving – rather than face-to-face.” 

  3. Let them lead: When starting conversations around careers, follow your child’s lead. 

    Dr John recommends “Start by asking open-ended, rather than ‘yes/no’ questions, and – above all – really listen to them. Try to “come alongside” your child, and resist any impulse to lecture or organise their life for them. If you want to have good communication it has to be two-way – as much listening as talking. One-way communication is when the parent is either telling the child something or asking for information.”

    Making your child feel valued is key to success, so starting a conversation by asking them about their passions, skills and what subjects they love, is fundamental to making them feel heard and should enable a more positive conversation. 

  4. You don’t need to have it all worked out: It can be daunting for both you and your child to have a conversation about career options.  

    Dr Rebecca said “Knowing what career your child will end up in may feel too ambitious after a few conversations so start with a short plan that develops over time. Ask them what they think their next steps will be over the next 12 months as this will help them develop a manageable pathway, while feeling invested in the plan.”

  5. Little and often: When it comes to talking about careers try not to think of it as ‘one big conversation’ that there is a big build up to. 

    Professor Geraint says “Little and often may be better than long and infrequent conversations as short, bite-sized interactions that are returned to regularly and informally are likely to be better than formal meeting-style conversations with your child. Many of these conversations may take place unpredictably and in less formal settings but that doesn’t mean they’re of poor quality. In fact, often children may be more receptive to speaking about how they feel when they don’t feel pressured.”