• Karen Ranus

5 Ways to Encourage Goal Setting For Teens

Updated: Sep 8



Ask any teenager about their dreams for the future and you’re likely to be inspired. Teens are passionate, creative, and full of big ideas. But goal setting – breaking those ideas down into organized, manageable steps – is a skill they have to learn. As writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, "A goal without a plan is just a wish." Goal setting teaches teens how to plan for a fabulous future, one step at a time. Here are five strategies for success:


1. Get curious about your teen’s dreams and passions.

What takes a goal across the finish line? A plan is important, but motivation matters most of all. Before you introduce the idea of goal setting with your teen, ask yourself: how well do you know what motivates them? What are they passionate about? Are you sure they’re following their passions and not yours? We often pressure teens to go for the goals that are most important from a parents’ perspective, but this strategy can sometimes backfire. Teens are more likely to grow into goal-oriented adults if they are motivated by genuine excitement and curiosity, rather than external factors like approval from others. To help your teen tap into their intrinsic motivation, get curious about their interests. Ask questions, be willing to learn, and feel excited with them. Your belief in them empowers them to believe in themselves.


2. Set goals together.

The most effective way to teach teens how to set goals is to make it fun and do it as a family. Setting goals together provides motivation and accountability and gives teens a template to use for individual goals later on. Family goals can be as simple as cooking dinner together one night a week or as complex as planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip. To get started, pick an easier goal and then work your way up to bigger targets. Make sure everyone is equally invested, agrees to their roles and responsibilities, and gets a say in choosing how to celebrate success. For example, the family could start by planning and training to run a 5K together. Once that goal has been achieved, you could then choose to train for a longer race, or try racing a fun obstacle course designed for all ages. Each time you achieve one goal, have the teens decide how they should top it.


3. Find your formula and make a roadmap.

First published in 1981 by George Doran, the SMART formula is a classic way to teach teens to map out their goals. SMART goals are:


  • Specific: You can define exactly what you want to achieve.

  • Measurable: You can measure what you have achieved and know when you have achieved it.

  • Achievable: Your goal will stretch you, but you know you can realistically reach it.

  • Relevant: Your goal matters to you and aligns with your values.

  • Time-based: You have a target date to reach your goal.

Another goal setting formula that’s great for teens is WOOP, developed by Dr. Garbrielle Oettingin:


  • Wish: What’s your wish? It should be challenging but attainable.

  • Outcome: What’s the best outcome you hope to achieve?

  • Obstacle: What’s the main obstacle that stands in the way of your wish being fulfilled?

  • Plan: What can you do to overcome that obstacle?


Whatever the formula, encourage your teen to map their goal with pen and paper or a digital device. Goals can be mapped in a journal or notebook, on poster board with colorful markers, or on a chalkboard wall. WOOP has a free app for Android and iOS, and planner and calendar apps are great for tracking reminders, milestones, and target dates.


4. Make it happen with micro goals.

Just like adults, teens can be master procrastinators when it comes to goals. Paradoxically, the higher teens aim, the harder it can be to make meaningful progress. The reason? High expectations and fear of failure compound stress. Teach teens to dream big but work towards their goals in small steps. Micro goals break a goal down into easily-achievable aims and prioritize consistent progress, even if it’s slow. Researchers at Stanford University found that small, incremental success is motivating at the beginning of a new project, but as they get closer to the finish line, teens should pick up the pace and focus on the excitement they’ll feel when they cross it.


5. Help them choose the right goals.

According to the nonprofit Challenge Success, “a narrow definition of success is hurting our kids.” Overemphasis on test scores, grades, and college admissions means teens are overwhelmingly sleep-deprived, worried about academics, and dealing with stress-related health symptoms. Goals should empower teens and expand their sense of what’s possible, not become a source of harmful stress. Parents can help teens choose goals wisely: What would make their lives more meaningful? How can they make a positive impact on the world – while also having fun? What would make them most proud of themselves? Goals should be values-based, challenging, and attainable.


With these five strategies, teens can learn practical skills for goal setting while staying connected to their passion and purpose. How’s that for a definition of success?



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