Parker sits down, folds his hands, and looks across the room at his therapist.
“It’s my senior year, and I’m applying to six different colleges. I’ve been in advanced placement science and math classes my whole life, and my dad is an engineer. I also really enjoy graphic design, and I’d love to be able to prepare for a career doing something like that. But going to a college to study design just doesn’t seem like a smart choice. I’m sure I would do well at Colorado School of Mines and my parents offered to pay, so should I just go there?”
Everyone experiences layers of “shoulds” in their lives. When people make decisions, all the past and present messages from families, friends, communities, and society clamor for attention. Some people consistently rebel against the shoulds while others comply in an effort to please everyone around them.
The answer to an important question like Parker’s is best determined by examining everything that goes into asking it.
First, it’s important to become aware of external messages and pressures, like those received from parents and friends. Obviously, parents are often going to give advice based on their own experiences – advice that they hope will make for a smoother and happier life. Friends give advice based on their own understanding of the world, the pressures they feel themselves, and what purpose they think college will serve.
But it’s equally important to become aware of internal messages, namely one’s own wants and needs. These can often be in conflict. On one hand, Parker wanted to please his parents and take the safe, predictable route, but he also wanted to honor his artistic skills and challenge himself by diving deeply into something he loved doing.
Finally, it’s important to honestly assess the short-term and long-term implications of all possible decisions.
Especially with the pressure teens face, the landscape of challenging emotions during the later years of high school can make finding clarity difficult. It’s often easier in the moment to simply react, and rebel against or comply with the shoulds that underlie any decision as important as where to go to college.
Working with a counselor, even for a short period of time, is very helpful in situations like this. Doing teen counseling with a licensed therapist, being outside the pressures and emotions that face teen clients, can help create a setting in which the shoulds are identified and the implications clarified. In doing that, a decision can be reached which feels aligned with both what the teen wants and what they need.
In the end, after a few sessions working through the possibilities with his therapist, Parker decided to attend a school which offered opportunities in not just math, science, and engineering, but also had a highly regarded design department. His parents appreciated the thoughtfulness that went into his choice and agreed to support his decision even though it wasn’t exactly what they wanted him to do.
The case studies on this website are fictionalized accounts based on real situations and people Peak to Peak Counseling’s therapists have been honored to work with over the years.