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The Path to Self-Discovery: Learning What Makes Your Teenager Tick

Ballerinas and firefighters come up a lot when you ask kindergarteners, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But by middle school, the responses are much more varied. YouTube personality and professional gamer might make the short list now, along with engineer, doctor, or lawyer.

The Path To Self-Discovery

Adolescence is a time when natural abilities emerge and special interests take shape. As teens start to learn what makes them tick, this can be an ideal time to do a little investigating about where their interests might take them. It might even help you answer the age-old question: “When am I ever going to use algebra, anyway?”

Here are four great ways you can help your teen along their path to self-discovery:

1. Check the Wiring

“We are all wired to be good at certain things, to solve problems in certain ways,” says Dr. Denise Reading, CEO of GetWorkerFIT, a company that helps students with career path and job skill development. Reading firmly believes, “The earlier you know this information about yourself, the better.”

Reading recommends teens complete a comprehensive assessment of their aptitude, personality type, values, and interests, like the one her organization offers online. “An assessment can reveal so many choices, so many fields that you and your child may never have known existed,” she says—many of which did not even exist a few years ago.

Some occupations will demand a college degree, while others may require a certification program. Though teens may not be ready to choose a path just yet, Reading says, “they will find it empowering to discover they have skills that are of value to the world.”

2. Fill in the Blank

Dr. Robin Chaddock, a life coach and author of Discovering Your Divine Assignment, supports the idea of self-assessment for teens. As a way to start the conversation, she suggests asking your teen to complete this sentence:  If the world had more _______, it would be a better place. Their answer can reveal what she calls their Central Passion. “Even at a young age, people can identify if they are more inclined toward justice or wisdom or generosity,” says Chaddock. “Then, parents and other adults can help them identify their skills, interests, and talents to bring that Central Passion alive.”

3. Connect the Dots

It’s impossible to know what all of the future career options will be for our teens. But it can be tantalizing to know that there are real-world applications for their interests. Reading advises parents to pay attention to what intrigues their teen, and what problems they like to solve.

Is your kid fascinated with drones? “Unmanned flight is becoming huge, not only in the military, but across many industries,” says Reading. Maybe they enjoy lab sciences at school?  “In some markets, there is a high demand for histotechnologists, who work with human, animal, or plant specimens to diagnose disease and abnormalities.” And the teen who is mastering the art of Instagram could someday find a use for those skills as a social media manager.

4. Support, but Don’t Steer

Be wary of guiding your teen to a specific college or career path based on what you envision for them. Your most important role, Chaddock says, “is to let your teen know they are unconditionally loved and valued for who they are, and not what they produce. What they choose as a college major or career path is just that—a path. People grow, mature, and explore new options as they move through life.”

Putting the time in now to discover what comes naturally to your teen and what interests them can make future life decisions easier. “High school can feel long and purposeless to a teen,” says Reading. “But once they understand why they are taking algebra and what they can do with it, they tend to become more engaged in learning. They can see a pathway into their future.”

Nancy O'Connor

Nancy O’Connor is a freelance writer and the triumphant mother of three emerging adult sons.