What Would You Say to a High School Student Who Feels Lost and Controlled by Family?

Posted by on Oct 16, 2012 in General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities, Interpersonal Communication | 30 comments

I think this student needs "trusted others" to help research all the possible directions.

This student needs “trusted others” to help research all the possibilities. (I think the outfit is pretty cute, too!)

(I’m covering a number of write-in questions, so stay tuned! I bet many of us can relate to this one! Can we provide some support to this student who feels uncertainty and family pressure? Let’s take a look…)

“I’m in high school and I don’t have long until I graduate. I am very unsure of what to do when I get out. I planned to go to community college and then attend a university. My family doesn’t agree with that decision (to attend a community college). In my family, the elders decide what career path provides a good income. Now I am confused. I feel like I’ve drifted along with what I have to do but I’ve never thought of what I want to do.

This is a big choice to make, especially if I want to get through in life. If I follow what someone else wants me to do, I will know that I’m doing it just so someone won’t disown me.”

Dear Student,

First of all, I’m sorry that you are feeling the way that you are, but know that you are not alone. Many, many people at your stage of life are simply unsure of the route to take. Let me tell you another secret: A bunch of students who say they know exactly what they want only believe they know. I’ve had students get into their programs and suddenly think, “This is totally not for me!” Please don’t beat yourself up for not knowing what you want to do right now because many are feeling just like you!

Here’s what I can offer in my advice: First, some options as I see them, and what I can recommend that you have in conversation(s).

The first thing that I’d like to see you have is a trusted someone on your side, whether that be a guidance counselor or teacher, who can help you untangle some of your decisions on the academic level. I would tell the counselor and/or teacher (or, hey, if you can get two people in your corner, all the better!) the same thing you told me: “I am graduating soon. I feel lost and confused. This is what I planned to do (lay out all the details) and my family disagrees with my decision. I am not sure about any of it at this point and I need some help to figure everything out.” You can also add, “Once I figure out the facts, I need someone who can support me while I present those facts to my family.”

So now, let’s break down your options:

-I couldn’t tell definitively (note to readers: we exchanged a few e-mails) if you’re also struggling with taking a break from school. Certainly, more than your family’s emotional support, you’ll have to consider the financial ramifications of that decision. One of the nice things about community college is that the structure would allow you to try college out and see how it feels, and even possibly do a combination of part-time school and work.

If you take a full break from school, make sure that you a) do something that enriches you in some way; and b) keep connected to the academic calendar in case you want to return. This post about taking a break will help.

Realize that the longer you stay out of school, the harder it can be to go back. I blogged here about my father dying… and unexpectedly taking six years to return to college.

-Now let’s talk about your family’s disagreement about your choice of school in tandem with your confusion over picking a career/major. Your inclination about going to a community college is a wise move. I think your family may not realize the benefits in waiting to pick a university if you’re just not sure about a major.

If you are a strong student, you could go into a community college honors program and/or score thousands of dollars in scholarships to make your next opportunities that much greater (Check out Isa Adney‘s story. She’s the author of Community College Success and winner of the $110,000 Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship). If you are struggling, which doesn’t sound like the case, you can a leg up on any help you need.

I’m hearing that you need more time to figure out what career path might fit you. Taking core classes at a much cheaper price would buy you that time. There is no reason that you could not visit your local community college now and talk with an educational planning adviser, the honors coordinator, and the financial aid office (to ask about scholarship possibilities) about potential opportunities. You could even say to anyone you encounter, “My family does not support my attending this school. What information can you provide that may help change their minds?” Gather everything to support that community college isn’t the “lesser” choice your family perceives. They may change their tune, but if not, you may feel more rooted in your path.

-Lastly, it wouldn’t hurt to explore your family’s recommendations to see if their ideas could fit you. Visit a university or two and see what possibilities may feel comfortable. You can ask an adviser or admissions rep, “What happens if I cannot declare a major right away?” or “What support services do you have for students who are unsure of their potential career path?” Universities have lots of support for students, too. You could start with core classes, just like at the community college–the cost will just be higher (which could work in your favor, once your family sees the price difference).

While you have a jumble of feelings right now, some open communication with your family is important for the future of your relationship with them. Although the conversation may be emotionally charged based on their expectations of you, hopefully it will ultimately lead to greater understanding and eventual support.

You can say: “I am really struggling with my decisions of what to do after high school. I know you have set ideas of what you want me to do. I’m feeling very anxious because I have to be able to live with those decisions and feel comfortable about them for a long time. I know you want what is best for me and I love you for that. I want what is best for me, too, and I have to figure out what that is. I am willing to explore the options that you think are right. Would you be willing to look at some of the options that I am thinking about, too, so we can consider all the possibilities and make a decision that we all feel good about?”

Let’s be real… your family may say, “No, we already told you what you’re going to do.”

In that case, go to your “trusted others” and keep them on your side. And keep doing your research on your plan.

You can tell your family that you’re willing to explore their options, but you’re going to move forward and investigate your own, too.

Fortunately, your high school graduation is not next week. You have time to figure this out and find as much peace as you can with your decision.

I look forward to hearing about the path you choose to take.


Mid-terms are underway, or maybe it’s time to figure out your grades. Have you talked to your professors yet? This is the time to self-advocate and Say This, NOT That to Your Professor is the tool to help! Have you taken a look inside?


  1. I wanted to second what Ellen said about you not being alone and feeling a bit lost. You are in a huge time of transition, so it is very normal to be lost and confused about what to do next. At 39 years old, I am transitioning careers, so I feel that way too. It’s trite to say this, but you will figure it out. We always find a way to get unstuck and by reaching out to Ellen you are trying to do just that!

    • Hi, Michelle,

      You brought up a really good point that you don’t have to be in high school to feel stuck! So many people right now are re-tooling and transitioning… a lot of folks are feeling the exact same way. Talking about it helps a great deal, particularly when we realize that others are going through it, too.

      I appreciate you commenting :-) .

  2. Kudos to you for writing to Ellen. Like Ellen said, keep seeking advice from people in the academic world and keep learning so that when you talk with your parents you can share valid research and information to back up your desires. I’m sure both you and your family want what is best for you – so I hope you’ll be able to agree on what that is. All I can say is that community college is a great option; it was wonderful for me! You sound like a bright student and I know that if you keep working on handling this with maturity and reading and gathering mentors about this everywhere you can that you will be able to figure out a direction that both you and your parents can be excited about. Becoming an adult and managing your life with your parents’ desires can be really difficult, but if you handle it with maturity and learn everything you can to guide your next step you will feel good about your decision. The only wrong step you can make is if you don’t take the time to think about the long-term implications your decisions will have on your life. You are thinking about it and are thus already on the right track! :) Good luck!

    • Hi, Isa,

      You always have the best advice, and you know I think you are a role model and ambassador for anyone who is thinking of starting off at a community college. Thank you for putting your personal touch on this!


  3. @timjteacher from twitter here.

    Here’s my advice. You have a long life ahead of you. Chances are, whatever you go to school for will not be your final career. I went to school for tv/radio broadcasting, now I teach high school English. Start making decisions and plans now for what you could do that would lead to contentment and your happiness, whatever that may be-plumber, doctor, teacher, or mechanic. If your parents care for you, and want you to be happy, they will respect your decision. As you do that, Seek out people in your life outside those who want to control you who will give you guidance along the path that you will believe will make you happy.

    • Tim,

      Thank you so much! You made me remember that I, too, switched careers! I was in healthcare for seven years and now I teach college communication! I know this student will appreciate your perspective. I sure do, as well.


  4. Often, just having a college degree is good on your resume, even if you do something else later. It’s also hard to imagine, but you can always get multiple degrees over a life time. I say this just because you can always change your mind. I will agree that starting down a path will help you decide.
    You’re further along than I was at your age. I had some tough times too and ended up dropping out of high school my freshman year. I have 2 degrees now (BS in Computer Science & my MBA). I don’t recommend dropping out or going years without school, but ultimately you can recover from anything. This is important to consider because I hope you can get to a place of feeling good about either choice you make.
    After getting my GED I started at a community college and then university. It is often harder to go from community college to a university instead of the other way around, but it’s totally possible.
    I’m not sure what your family wants you to do. If they want you to go to a good school (and you have choice of what you study…even if that means starting with basics and then picking a degree) and if they will help pay for it, it might be worth considering. I know you want to get to a place in life where you get to make your own decisions, and I promise you will. Try thinking through if what they want you to do will be helpful for you and if you don’t like that they are deciding or if the what really doesn’t work for you. I’ve found that it works best if I can get to a place that is quiet, ideally in nature to just relax (ideally meditate) and once in a really calm state, simple ask yourself what you want to do now. You can always realign your path. Knowing what you want and having a direct path is surly the fastest way to get there, but if that isn’t an option, follow JP Morgan’s great quote “Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see farther.”
    Good luck. I bet years down the road, you will look back and it will have all worked out which ever option you take.

    • Layla,

      Thank you SO much for sharing your wisdom and experiences! You will be an incredible inspiration to this student and it sounds like you have come through a lot! You mentioned that you feel it is difficult to start at a community college and go to a university. Is this because of the shift from the smaller classes to larger classes? Do you feel it is easier to just start at a university, acclimate oneself, and remain there? I teach at a CC and tons of our students transition and do fine, but of course, my experience is going to be based on what I see. I also see students start at a university and come back because they simply were not ready for the larger environment. Of course, many students begin at a university and do great.

      I can’t thank you enough for your perspective. I truly appreciate you commenting!

      • I’m so glad that you found my comment helpful. My point about transitioning from CC to university was not actually about it being hard as a student but from what I’ve heard it can be harder to get in to some universities from CC instead of directly from high school. That being said, harder doesn’t mean impossible but any means.

  5. Small class sizes, personal attention by professors, articulation agreements with 4-yr Universities for when you are ready to transfer, all at a great price & plenty of opportunities 2 explore passions. All this makes community college a big, fat YES.

    • Jessica, I’m right there with you :-) . As I said in the piece, it just gives a person time to figure things out at a much, much cheaper price. And the articulation agreements–I forgot about that! Excellent call!

      Thank you!

  6. Thank you so much for all your support guys, I understood that a lot of people are going through the same thing, some earlier or later in life than others, I was just in a bit of a predicament, and ended up not showing up at school for weeks being so bent out of shape about this.
    Layla, My grandparents are willing to pay for my college, my grandmother had decided the college she wanted me to attend and told me she wanted me to go into the medical field such as pediatrics because she says I’d be good with children, though I agree I’m good with children, I disagree with going into the medical field because I’m not very good at focusing on science stuff, although I’m very knowledgeable in the subject, it’s only enough to pass the class, and not because I want to enter a field that requires knowing it. I’m more interested in psychology, the reason I wanted to go to a community college is because I plan to graduate my High School early, (it’s not a very good school and doesn’t offer many classes) and then go to the community college (for 2-3 years) to finish all my undergraduate classes so that it will be easier to apply to a University (For 2 years).
    I have no goal to stay close at home, quite frankly if I did, and succeeded in my career, I’d feel obligated to help my family out, and that’s not my soul purpose, no offense to my parents or siblings.

    • Hello!
      You came and commented on your post! I am really honored and proud of you for doing that :-) . I will tweet and let the commenters know!


    • My advice would be that you have to go with what feels right to you.

      Now, what I’m about to share is how I imagine I would handle it – I’m not saying you should do this, just one possible way I would. I would say something like “thank you so much for caring enough to try to help me find the best path for my life. I can totally see how you could see pediatrics as a good option for me. I’ve given it a lot of thought and it just isn’t where my passion is. From everything that I’ve heard, people are always most successful when the do what they love. I don’t want to spend my time and your money pretending that it is and then later having regret or resenting you. I would love if you would still invest in me and my education in an areas that I love. I also see college as a time for me to broaden my horizons so that when I am done I have clarity on how I will start that next part in my life.”

      So basically, for me, I would not go down a track that was someone else’s dream for me. I would try to tell them with the most possible gratitude and understanding that they truly do believe they are acting in your interest and they just don’t see the whole picture. Of course this may mean that you pay your own way or need scholarships. Which is what I did. You never know, once your family gets past trying to convince you and after it is clear that you are going a different path, they may still want to support that path. Then again, if you think you can pull of doing it on your own then it might relieve a huge burden.

      I’m still not sure I understand the motivation of the community college vs. university choice. I’m sure there are many factors and different characteristics you apply to each. I would say looks at the schools you want to go to, community college or university and from those see what you can get into and if you can get scholarship. There are some cases where the school matters, but unless you are going for a very specific career path that is hard to get unless you’re in a top school, it doesn’t matter all that much as long as you’re learning what you need to know.

      Again, I’m not suggesting that this is what’s right, just that you should feel that you can decide what is right.

      As an aside, now, years later it’s just not a big deal. While it may not seem like it yet, eventually this will be part of the story of your interesting path to where you will be.

      Somewhat unrelated, I feel compelled to share this with you. This guy makes music with the sole intention of improving how people feel (and he gives it all away for free). http://joefredandfriends.bandcamp.com/ If you’re feeling frustrated try listening to his music with your eyes closed and breathing deeply.

      Best of luck Fay!

  7. Check out this short video that’s only 2 minutes and 45s…so on topic.

  8. This is a wonderful answer to a very difficult situation. One thing to keep in mind is that your conversation with your family is probably going to be very hard. Being prepared for that may help. But hard is sometimes good. The one theme that runs through both this post and most of the comments is the importance of sitting down and talking to your family. As is true in so many situations, good communication is key. Help them understand that you respect their opinions and love that they care so much about you, but that you need to make your own path. Talking openly and reasonably to them, having done some research about options, will show them your maturity and reassure them that you are making thoughtful decisions.

    • Vicki,

      I knew that you would have a great idea to add since these are the types of discussions that I know you focus on with parents, as well. Thank you so very much for commenting!


  9. SUch an important post Ellen. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Thank you, Ted. I appreciate you always :-) .

  10. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.
    You definitely know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your blog when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?

    • I am wondering if your comment was meant for this blog? I use video very, very rarely–less than half of one percent of all of my weekly posts. Feel free to peruse the blog and see all that is written. Hopefully you can find some good advice. Thanks! Ellen

  11. I have read so many articles or reviews about the blogger lovers but this post is genuinely
    a nice post, keep it up.

    My web-site fotograf Małopolska

  12. It’s hard to find your page in google. I found it
    on 14 spot, you should build quality backlinks ,
    it will help you to rank to google top 10. I know how to help you, just search in google – k2 seo tips

  13. This is really interesting, You are a very skilled
    blogger. I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your excellent post.
    Also, I’ve shared your site in my social networks!

    Feel free to visit my website: Purington

  14. Local tax firms offer specialize in individuals and small businesses.
    If you are misplaced and don’t recognize how to start on your search for an IRS Penalty Abatement, make use of a skilled expert to obtain IRS Assistance.
    If a debtor fails to make payments or cannot complete their plan, the trustee may
    convert the case into a true Chapter 7, and assets may be made
    available for outright claims.

    my website ft lauderdale car show

  15. Take for instance a company that for the current period has more outstanding payables than they do receivables.
    They come to the picture even in divorce cases in order
    to establish compensation that is needed for child support or spouses.
    For conducting the additional analysis on the specific CPA network, which will assist you to earn funds,
    all you want to do is you will need to place in the identify of that network along with
    some other applicable keyword phrases that could possibly
    assist you in discovering out if there is any precise challenge with that individual organization.

    My website :: Boca Raton CPA supplies houston

  16. Several artificial tanning solutions are available in the market sue to which sun tanning is
    not all required. There are many natural beauty products used, if you have one, replace
    them by a similar option. “The Blacklist” also stars Diego Klattenhoff, Harry Lennix, Ryan Eggold and Ilfenesh Hadera.

    my blog post – spray tan upper east

  17. I have noticed you don’t monetize your website, don’t waste your traffic,
    you can earn extra cash every month because
    you’ve got hi quality content. If you want to know how to make extra money, search for:
    Ercannou’s essential tools best adsense alternative

  18. Hi, is anybody here interested in online job?
    It’s simple survey filling. Even 10$ per survey (10 minutes of work).

    If you are interested, send me e-mail to hansorloski[@]gmail.com

  19. Superb, what a website it is! This web site presents helpful information to us, keep it up.


  1. Another High School Student Writes: "I Read Last Week's Post. I Could Really Relate." - [...] a high school senior. I read “What Do You Say to a High School Student Who Feels Lost and ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>