Getting Your Teen (and Yourself) Ready for Life After High School

By BigFuture

Family and Caring Adult Table Talk Guide

The years leading up to your teen’s high school graduation and transition to college, trade school, the military, or whatever their next step may be are both exciting and overwhelming. Both you and your teen are likely looking forward to this new stage of their life, but you may first need to work with them to manage the stress and many decisions associated with this shift.

There’s a lot on your student’s plate—and yours is likely full too. As much as you want to help, you might be wondering how to balance allowing your teen to take the lead and playing more of a supportive role as they figure out what comes next. Planning for what’s next after high school looks different for everyone, and if you never attended college yourself or aren’t familiar with the path your student is interested in pursuing, you may not know how to guide them. 

Offering your support and serving as a sounding board as your teen figures out their next steps is a powerful way to help them. Start there, and then use some of these concrete tips to help your teen comfortably plan for and navigate this time of change.

Let Your Teen’s Goals Be Your Guide

You may think your teen’s only option is going to a four-year college, but there are a number of paths they can take, including:

  • Community college
  • Job or skills training, including trade school
  • Apprenticeship
  • Part-time or full-time work
  • Military
  • Gap year to travel, figure out next steps, or take care of their mental or physical health 

Let your teen’s goals determine the next steps. If they’re interested in a career as a data scientist or graphic designer, for example, a four-year college degree program may be the best option. But there are many other career paths they can take—such as becoming a paralegal, medical assistant, pharmacy technician, electrician, and more—that require some additional education after high school but not a four-year college degree.

Talk with your teen about what they hope to get out of their professional life. If they’re not sure what they’d like to do, encourage them to try an online tool such as the BigFuture® Career Quiz to explore careers that match their interests. 

Be a Cheerleader, Not the Coach

Part of preparing your teen for life after high school is allowing them to practice independent decision making and time management. You may be tempted to oversee responsibilities and deadlines to help your teen get things done on time, but by stepping back you’ll give them the opportunity to grow skills and strengths that will serve them when they’re on their own.

As you settle into this transition phase, look at yourself as a supportive cheerleader on the sidelines rather than the coach in charge.

  • Remember it’s a process, not an event. Gradually step back from tasks you’re used to handling, like laundry, making doctors’ appointments, or keeping track of after-school activities—and allow your teen to take the lead. You may need to offer their doctor’s contact info or share tips that make laundry easier but encourage and support your teen in taking responsibility for these life tasks.
  • Resist the urge to jump in. Your teen may procrastinate and run up against an application deadline or forget to do something entirely. It’s tempting to try to prevent these errors but give gentle reminders and advice rather than doing tasks for them. Sometimes making a mistake is the best way to learn. 
  • Be open to different ways of getting things done. Your teen may do things a bit differently than you would but still achieve the same result. Micromanaging won’t help in this situation—and you might just learn something new from your teen, so keep an open mind about their ideas and approaches.

Learn more about helping your teen develop basic life skills.

Get Comfortable Talking About Finances

It’s normal to have worries or anxiety about finances, especially with the rising price of higher education and cost of living. 

If you can’t help your teen financially, you may feel some guilt or anxiety about how they’ll finance their education or other next steps. 

These feelings and experiences are understandable and valid. It may be awkward at first, but talking openly and honestly about money can be one of the best ways to cope with your feelings and come to a mutual understanding with your teen. 

  • Take a look at your finances and determine how much you can help your teen. If they’re considering college, resources such as the Federal Student Aid Toolkit for parents can help you plan for the cost of school and determine financial aid eligibility. 
  • Explore additional sources of financial support, such as loans, grants, and scholarships, that can support your student’s postsecondary education. Use BigFuture Scholarship Search to find matches from over 6,000 programs, totaling over $4 billion in scholarships.
  • Sit down with your teen and be transparent about whether you can financially support them during their next steps. Consider sharing how you feel and offer to strategize with them about how to pay for college or trade school and budget living expenses. 

Learn more about financial planning and having conversations about money with your teen.

Even if you cannot financially support your teen during their next steps, you can offer other forms of support and help them grow their financial literacy and confidence managing money. Some resources that may help:

Keep Communicating

Keeping lines of communication open is especially important as your teen takes on more responsibility and begins planning for life after high school. There are simple ways to communicate mindfully and effectively.

  • Talk about things other than college applications, such as what they’re excited about, extracurricular activities they’ll pursue, or other plans, to reduce pressure and connect meaningfully. 
  • Give them space as needed. 
  • Be open about your feelings—and take breaks as needed—when discussing a challenging or uncomfortable topic. 

Learn more about how to have tough family conversations and create new communication guidelines for you and your family.

Additional Resources

You can learn more about career options for your teen, including education requirements and median salaries, by using the BigFuture Career Search tool. You can research college, community college, and technical college options for your teen by using College Search

For more information on how to support your teen when planning for life after high school, check out our Family and Caring Adult Table Talk Guide.