Empowering Teens’ Career Choices

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Choosing a high school major is a significant milestone for adolescents, marking their first steps toward a future career. However, these decisions often align with gender stereotypes, where boys tend to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) fields, and girls lean towards the humanities. This gendered pattern has far-reaching consequences, including future earnings gaps and persistent gender segregation in various professions. Understanding the familial and individual factors that influence these choices is crucial, especially for parents and school mental health professionals striving to support adolescents’ autonomous decision-making.

Self-Determination Theory: A Framework for Understanding Motivation

This recent study draws on the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which emphasizes the importance of self-endorsed motives for growth and adaptation. According to SDT, significant others, particularly parents, play a vital role in enhancing adolescents’ motivation by providing a supportive environment that meets their psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This supportive context allows adolescents to make decisions that genuinely reflect their values and preferences.

The Role of Parental Need Support

Parental need support is critical in helping adolescents make autonomous choices about their high school majors. Need-supporting parents acknowledge their children’s perspectives, provide meaningful rationales, and foster their internal motivation. In contrast, controlling parents induce pressure through guilt or rewards, frustrating their children’s basic needs. Adolescents who experience parental need support are more likely to choose a major that aligns with their interests and values, leading to greater satisfaction and engagement.

Identity Processing Styles: How Adolescents Make Decisions

Adolescents’ identity processing styles significantly impact their decision-making processes. Berzonsky’s model describes three styles: informative, normative, and diffuse-avoidant. Adolescents with an informative style actively seek and evaluate information before making decisions. Those with a normative style rely on the expectations of significant others, while those with a diffuse-avoidant style avoid making decisions and adjust their attitudes to current social demands.

Studies suggest that supportive parenting enhances adolescents’ ability to engage in informative identity processing, leading to autonomous and well-integrated decisions about their high school majors. This process is especially crucial for decisions that break gender norms, such as girls choosing STEM majors or boys opting for humanities.

Gender Differences in Motivation and Perception

Gender differences in the perception and reaction to parental support play a significant role in career decision-making. Research indicates that girls and boys differ in how they perceive and respond to need-supportive behaviors. For instance, girls tend to value and respond more positively to support, especially in subjects like math and science, where they typically report lower self-efficacy. Conversely, boys may require more support in fields perceived as less masculine, such as the humanities.

The Study: Key Findings

The study examined Israeli 9th graders’ choices of high school majors and the role of parental need support and identity processing styles in these decisions. The findings highlight the importance of parental support in fostering autonomous motivation for both STEM and non-STEM fields. However, the impact of parental support varies by gender and the type of field chosen.

  • Non-STEM Majors: Boys’ autonomous choices in non-STEM fields were more strongly related to their parents’ support than girls’. This suggests that boys may need more encouragement to pursue fields outside the traditional male-dominated STEM areas.
  • STEM Majors: Girls’ autonomous choices in STEM fields were more dependent on parental support than boys’. This finding underscores the importance of parental encouragement for girls in male-dominated fields, helping them overcome self-doubt and societal stereotypes.

Implications for Parents and Educators

These findings offer valuable insights for parents and educators aiming to support adolescents’ career choices. Here are some practical takeaways:

  1. Foster Autonomy: Encourage adolescents to explore their interests and make decisions that reflect their values. Provide meaningful rationales and support their sense of competence.
  2. Challenge Gender Norms: Actively support girls in pursuing STEM fields and boys in considering humanities and social sciences. Address and counteract societal stereotypes that limit their choices.
  3. Supportive Environment: Create a home and school environment that nurtures autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Recognize and validate adolescents’ perspectives and provide the necessary support for their exploration and decision-making.

What do you think?

To foster engagement and discussion, consider the following questions:

  1. How can parents balance providing support and allowing autonomy in their children’s decision-making processes?
  2. What strategies can schools implement to encourage girls to pursue STEM fields and boys to explore humanities and social sciences?


Parental support plays a crucial role in adolescents’ autonomous decision-making regarding high school majors. By fostering a need-supportive environment, parents can help their children make choices that reflect their true interests and values, breaking free from traditional gender stereotypes. This approach not only enhances adolescents’ motivation and satisfaction but also contributes to a more equitable and diverse future workforce.

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