Are you worried that your emerging adult child’s career goals may be unrealistic or unwise? Maybe your child—who got a D in their last math class—told you they plan to become an engineer. Or your messy teen who can’t keep their assignment due dates straight says they want to be an event planner. Perhaps your college student who dreams of living in luxury just changed their college major to art history.
As a parent, you want to support your child in their dreams. But the apparent disconnect between their abilities and their desired career puts you into a difficult position. If you allow them to pursue unrealistic goals, they might waste valuable time and money. Alternately, if you discourage them, their self-esteem and your relationship might suffer a significant blow.
If you’re not sure what to do, you’re not alone. We’ve worked with many parents in this precarious situation. Here are some of the most common questions we receive and how we typically answer:
Q: What causes young adults to have such unrealistic expectations?
A: There are several possibilities. For one, teens see the world much differently than adults do. Young people’s brains—which don’t fully mature until around age 25—typically don’t think logically or practically. They are primarily interested in things that sound unique, glamorous, and fun.
Technology may also play a role. When young people see the carefully curated images of their peers and role models being successful on social media, they often develop unrealistic expectations for their own lives. An increase in materialistic attitudes in younger generations has also pushed many young people toward fields with high income potential.
As if all that wasn’t troubling enough, young people also have a way of internalizing the unrealistic expectations of others, including their parents, high school teachers, and college professors.
Q: What problems can unrealistic career expectations cause later in life?
A: If your child doesn’t ultimately achieve their pie-in-the-sky career goals, there may be real consequences. On a practical level, they may have spent significant time and money—perhaps 4-5 years and more than $50,000 if they went to college—chasing the wrong career.
Unrealistic expectations can also set your child up for psychological problems. For example, an expectation that accomplishing their goals will be easy could later lead to burnout and resentment. If they blame themselves for their perceived failure to realize their high expectations, it could also impact their self-esteem and, in some cases, lead to anxiety and/or depression.
Q: What are the risks if I discourage my child from following their dream?
A: The most apparent initial risks have to do with the relationship between you. If you aren’t careful about how you talk to them about their career goals, your child could walk away feeling insulted, discouraged, or attacked. If they don’t end up liking the alternative career path you push them into, they could end up resenting you for it, even though you only had their best interests at heart.
Discouraging your young adult from following their dreams could also sabotage their future happiness. If your teen is dissuaded from pursuing a dream career, they’ll never know whether they could have made it work. In our experience, people are most likely to regret things they never did (as opposed to something they did do). This regret could contribute to low self-esteem and depression, especially if they aren’t enjoying whatever career you convinced them to pursue.
It’s impossible to know in advance what career path would make your child the happiest. You may think that your experience puts you in a better position to make an educated guess, but this isn’t necessarily true. Because your personality and values aren’t in perfect alignment with those of your child, and because your child is living in a different economy and social structure than you did—there’s a good chance your notion of what’s best for them is entirely mistaken.
Q: How can I support my child in making wise career choices?
A: It’s essential to stay humble, open-minded, and optimistic as you support and guide your child through the career exploration process. Specifically, here are several tips we recommend:
Provide more career choices, not fewer
Find out what attracts your child to their dream career. Kindly suggest that in addition to their current career idea, they also consider options that provide similar benefits. “It sounds like a high salary is one of the things you like about engineering. I wonder what other careers also come with high salaries. Let’s do some research.” You can also compliment your child on their strengths and suggest career options that would make use of them.
Gently introduce elements of reality
Instead of telling your daughter that you think she’s too disorganized to become an event planner, you could ask her what skills she believes she’ll need in that field. Connect her with career resources so she can see for herself what’s required. You can also talk to your child about how social media may be creating unrealistic expectations in terms of their life goals.
Set the right expectations for your child
If there are limits to the amount of support you can offer or the amount of time you are willing to permit your child to continue living at home, you should set that expectation upfront. In the same way that you should respect your child’s goals and boundaries, they should also respect yours. For example, if you’re not willing to host your child at home beyond their college graduation, it might be wise to set that boundary early on.
Allow them to explore their interests
If your child still has their heart set on a particular career after doing basic research on it, the next logical step is for them to try it out. To avoid investing too much time or money initially, they might seek an informational interview with someone in the field or shadow that person for a day. If that goes well, they might try a summer job or internship. There’s no substitute for direct experience, so if the career is indeed a bad fit for your child, they will realize it soon enough. Even if they invest significant time in the “wrong” career, that time will not be wasted! Their enthusiasm for that field, temporary as it may end up being, will have fueled the acquisition of valuable transferable skills and taught them valuable lessons about themselves and the world.
Keep an open mind
Your background, personality, and values determine how you view the world. Because you and your child are not the same, you can’t assume that you know what’s best or even possible for them to achieve. While an art history career might sound boring and risky to you, for example, your child might turn out to be one of the most successful art historians of their generation. Ultimately, your child will have to live with their career decisions. Since they will be the ones stuck with most of the consequences, it makes sense that they should be allowed to choose their own path in life.
If you are seeking support for your emerging adult’s unrealistic career aspirations, we can help. Visit our page about therapy for dependent adult children (aka “failure to launch”) for more information. You can also book a free, 20-minute phone consultation with Dr. Crystal I. Lee or Dr. Jenifer Goldman.