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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Preparing Teens to Launch Successfully

 by Katherine O'Brien ThD Candidate, Certified College Planning Specialist

Butterflies are beautiful! With their large delicate wings and surprising coloration they captivate us.

As we know, they start as caterpillars, then hide away in a cocoon to transform, eventually emerging after a slow wriggling struggle to work their way out of the confines of that small space.

Our children also go through a transformation process, not quite as all-encompassing as the change from caterpillar to butterfly, yet incredibly complex nonetheless.


We love our children and want them to do well. Guiding them through the years of transition is challenging, requiring much discernment and effort. Over my two decades of working with teens, I have noticed two major mistakes that well meaning parents make. The first is to stifle all growth, keeping teens tightly controlled. The second is an extreme hands off, laissez-faire approach. There's another way that avoids the pitfalls of both.


Protecting our children from the dangers of the world is definitely one of our responsibilities as parents. When they come to us, they are completely defenseless. By the time they leave, we sometimes forget, they need to be able to defend themselves. Transitioning them, step by step, is a delicate process, a process that requires knowing one's child very well and constantly discerning what information to share at what depth at each stage of their growth. Pain is a part of life. Pets and beloved friends and relatives die and loss must be borne. Friendships come, and friendships end.

Over the past twenty years, opportunities for young people to take on increasing responsibility for themselves continue to exist. However, the willingness of parents to permit, furthermore encourage, this growth has diminished steadily, then shut down completely during the pandemic. Far too many bright, capable youth have never cooked a meal, washed their own laundry, or held a job. Every year I work with seniors about to finish high school, only months from leaving home from college. I work diligently with them all, orienting them to college academics and life. I am stunned by the number who have been driven door to door all their lives, scheduled by their parents, and catered to in every way. With no opportunities to take on responsibilities, these students, in steadily increasing numbers, arrive at college completely ill prepared for anything but the schoolwork. This needs to change!

Teens need to learn to get themselves where they need to be prepared and on time. They need to manage their own calendars, organizing their various responsibilities. They absolutely need to have responsibilities in the home, whether it's handling their own laundry, preparing meals once a week, caring for the yard, or something else. Regular routine tasks that they are responsible for and held accountable to take care of. If they have extra activities that preclude completing their chores for a time, they need to make arrangements for someone else to accomplish those tasks, and they need to see that  their substitute did them well!


Having a job is now a rarity. What an incredible opportunity for growth! Being responsible to someone who is not in your family forces you to grow. There is no "wiggle room." A boss expects you to be on time every time, ready to do the work at hand with a good demeanor, etc. This accountability to people outside the family is absolutely key to teen growth.


Some teens are completely unfettered, allowed to pursue their interests as they desire. They are encouraged to explore and supported with freedom to roam through the opportunities in life. 

This allows young people freedom to discover interests outside the confines of the courses offered at school and the standard clubs and sports. Our society has so many interesting possibilities. I've spoken with young blacksmiths, pilots, and international travels, to name just a few. I've worked with young people who were responsible for much of the care of their grandparents who were ailing, needed medication management, doctor's visits translated, mobility assistance in the home and more.

Some of these teens have thrived, to an extent. Many struggled with a sense of having been abandoned. While they appreciated the opportunities, they were pained by the lack of support or guidance that came along with the license and freedom they'd been given. This was very difficult for them to navigate, these feelings of both gratitude and resentment they felt.


Just as a caterpillar turned butterfly must work its way slowly, millimeter by millimeter, out of the chrysalis, so our teens need opportunities to grow, step by step, into adults. They need both enough freedom to explore and try and fail and guidance and support and protection so they learn from their mistakes, have the necessary discernment to decide which opportunities to take and which to skip. as well as encouragement along the way.

Opportunities for teens to work with adults who are not their parents helps them mature, explore their strengths, learn new things, take on responsibilities, and more. My sons, for example, were involved in the Boy Scouts for years (I have three Eagle Scout sons to show for it!), a program designed specifically to inculcate maturity and solid values (trustworthiness, courage, helpfulness, friendliness, reverence, etc.) in youth. Many of our priests were Scouts as teens (read more).

Mentors are essential in teens' lives. Adults who are not their parents can be sounding boards for new interests. Mentors are invaluable, assisting teens through failures, helping them through the sting of the loss as well as guiding them to learn from those experiences. 


A significant part of my work with teens, especially during their freshman and sophomore years is mentoring them. I guide them as they adjust to high school life, explore various interests, and test their wings in various leadership roles. With me, they explore possible careers and college majors, learning more about what those fields are and how they, with their gifts, talents, interests, and personalities might do in them. When they are ready, the teens involve their parents in that conversation.

We need to give our kids the gift of time with other adults so they can sort themselves out. Sharing their interests with parents is a significant step. They want us to be proud of them. They need parental encouragement, as well as our carefully worded concerns. They need to know that their relationship with their parents is strong, despite the upheavals along the journey from childhood to adulthood.

To schedule a family meeting with Katherine so your teen can discuss his or her accomplishments and hopes and dreams, you all can get your college prep, admissions, costs, and aid questions answered, please email her: or call her at (858) 705-0043.

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