Dec Guide

How to help your teenager choose a career?

Pexlels- Pixabay

Welcome back to the December guide. Life is getting busy now for everyone with preparations for the festive season. But hopefully you will get some downtime to breathe and relax before we kick off again in the New Year. And with that downtime, some time to help your teen to register for the CAO and put some thought into careers and the various routes they can take.

So, how can we as parents help our teens to make their own decision?

I, myself, found this to be difficult! Not so much with Number 1 son, he knew what he wanted and was able to motivate himself to choose and study to get (just enough!) points for his course. But with sons 2 & 3, it was virtually impossible as they, at 18, still could not see their future – or at least not past dinner time this evening!

For any parent it can be difficult, as on the one hand it is your teen’s life and their decision. On the other, they may have no clue as to what they want, how to choose, or how to find out information to help them choose. When does a parent step in or when should they hold back and let the teen make a mistake because after all that’s where we learn? But a mistake could be quite damaging and yet the teenager may not want you involved in making or helping them with a decision.

It’s tough! But here are some tips that can help transform that discussion from defensive and argumentative to open and constructive.

Understanding their current position

  1. Find out where your teen is at with their decision and thoughts by asking open-ended questions such as: What are your thoughts on your career? Let them lead the discussion. If they are defensive, back off for a while and ask again when they are in better form.
  2. If they remain defensive and not open to talking about it, chances are they don’t know how to progress with their research/decisions. They are possibly scared and overwhelmed with having to make the ‘right’ decision. They are under considerable pressure already with teachers loading on the work and other people asking them what they want to do when they leave school.
  3. Reassure them that they can only make the best decision with the information they have to hand, which to be fair to teenagers, is very little compared to parents who have been through the process and have a better world view. We cannot be 100% certain that the decision we make is guaranteed to be right ten years into the future.
  4. Find out where they are stuck by again, asking open questions that encourage them to respond beyond yes or no.

Helping them to move forward

  1. Having discovered where they are stuck, it’s time to offer practical assistance by sitting with them to assist with their decision process.
  2. If they have a general idea of a career but don’t know which option to choose, help them work out their parameters/constraints. As a family, you may have financial or other considerations that dictate the teenager remains at home while studying/working. If so, work out all these before heading into research. It will narrow down the focus and therefore the overwhelm.
  3. Work out what the teens academic capability is – there’s a points calculator on the CAO website that will assist in working out the points. Ask your teen what grades they can realistically achieve in each subject. Could they stretch to a higher grade on one or two subjects to get to the next level? Here, they want to give themselves a small stretch but not unrealistically so.
  4. Help your teenager understand themselves better. Let them know what they are good at, particularly in the skills that are not measured by grades. What are their leaderships skills like, do they work well with people or better as solo operators? Remember there is no judgement on any of these skills, as a society we need every combination of skills we can get.
  5. Help your teenager understand what their passions are. Ask the question: what impact would you like to have on people/world? Or: what problem in the world would you like to solve? If the reply is too big, help them break it down by asking what particular aspect of that problem can they help with?
  6. Help them translate those answers into practical steps forward.
  7. This discussion will not happen on one day but can be tackled over a number of times when the teenager is amenable.


Photo by Mohammad Danish from Pexels

So, now they have a general sense of where they want to end up, how do they get there? Time to move to the research stage. In Ireland, we are very driven towards higher education and so most people look to universities or Institutes of Technology (IT’s) – which are all converting to university status anyway – but there are other routes.

  1. Work out the route your teenager wants to take ensuring that they are informed of other options also such as apprenticeships and further education possibilities.
  2. Head to the CAO website which gives a full list of courses that can be applied for there and they also give links to the apprenticeship and further education websites.
  3. Alternatively, you can request a full printed prospectus from each university which some people find easier to use.
  4. When researching, remember to check the modules or subjects the student will study and the likely careers that the graduates can hope for – do they match with what the teen has described about themselves and what their passions are?
  5. Check the minimum entry requirements for required subjects from the Leaving Cert and minimum grades, while also checking the historical points required for entry if applying for a course through the CAO. Remember, these points fluctuate each year depending on demand for the course so could be higher or lower than the previous year.
  6. If your teenager comes up with a career that you disagree with, don’t shut them down, especially if you have never heard of it before. Take the time to hear them discuss why they want to do that. Does that tie in with what they have said about themselves and what you know about them? If not, gently point out the mismatch and suggest they look at something else. If it is a career you haven’t heard of, take time to research it yourself. New careers are popping up all the time as technology advances which may be very suitable for your child.
  7. Have a back-up plan! I can’t say it enough, have one, even if your teen can get maximum points. Every year, some of the most popular courses on the CAO end up oversubscribed and the CAO offers a few places to applicants by random selection. That means that some students will get a place while others on the same points won’t get an offer. Ensure your teen has a few courses that are similar to what they want but may not be so popular and therefore easier to get into.

Other points to remember:

  1. If your teenager has already decided their directon without any input from you, brilliant, you can avoid most of the above. However, carefully check out their justification for choosing that course. Does it sit right with you and what you know about your teen? While it is their decision, more than likely you are paying for their studies and you do want to ensure that your money is not being wasted.
  2. If your teen has chosen the course/college/university first because “all my friends are going there” – beware! Chances are this is not a good choice but you may need to tread carefully to tease out the issue with them without making them defensive.
  3. Still unsure? Open up the prospectus for a university where it is likely your teen will study. Go through the different schools or departments within and the courses that each run, eliminating the courses they are not interested in. This helps narrow the focus and gives an indication of a course they may like.
  4. If, after the above process, your teen is still unsure, give them permission NOT to go to college. Taking a year or two out to work will give them time to decide while also give them very valuable skills that other full time students are not getting. It also gives them time to grow up, learn more about themselves and understand the world of work. They may only be paid the minimum wage, doing low skilled work, but that in itself is a learning experience which may motivate them to make other choices for themselves. And, no, they won’t be ancient compared to their classmates if they return to full time study later on. Lots of people return to study at any age so if they are twenty, chances are there will be somebody thirty or older in the class.
  5. There is a lot of pressure in Irish society to get high points, go to university, to get a great job. Resist this pressure to allow your teenager to pursue a path that suits them best.


There may seem a lot to unpack in this month’s guide. Choose the points that suit you and your situation.

Support is the important word in this process. You are providing the right support to your teenager to help them move forward. As with all aspects of parenting, it is hard to get the balance right. So, go easy on you and them.

Find out where they are stuck and help them move forward with that. Defensiveness could well be a sign that they don’t want to admit that they don’t know how to move forward.

Acknowledge their difficulties and encourage their efforts. Help them fill in the blanks by telling them what their skills are rather than telling them what career to choose (even if you are right!).

Give them permission to make the right choices for them, even if they feel they should be doing something ‘bigger’ or following their friends.

If you have any questions on this or any other topic, remember to jot them down and bring them to our next live Q&A session. I look forward to talking with you then.