Is Goal-Setting Helping or Harming Your Teen?

How to encourage effective use of goals.

Posted Feb 24, 2020

Nikolay Frlochkin/Pixaby
Source: Nikolay Frlochkin/Pixaby

From the time we are young, most of us have received the message that goal-setting is an important part of our personal development. There is a lot of truth to this idea. In my clinical practice, I have seen how crucial goals can be. At the same time, I have also seen how detrimental and crushing they can be to healthy emotional growth.

On the one hand, goals can be an anchor that keeps us from feeling like we are drifting without purpose. They give us vision, which increases motivation. Furthermore, when we recognize our ability to accomplish goals, our self-confidence increases.

Despite these benefits, being consistently goal-driven can rob us of joy. Goal setting can increase anxiety derived from a fear of failure. When goals are not met, an increase in depression can stem from decreased self-worth. Interestingly, increases in depression can also be seen once goals are achieved. In these cases, the depression arises from feeling a lack of continued purpose.

I have worked with teens with whom goal setting was a crucial treatment component. Many of them were engaging in problematic behaviors such as substance use, school avoidance, or impulsivity. Once these teens identified their own goals, they were able to see the likelihood of their problem behaviors moving them away from goal attainment. In such situations, goals resulted in higher senses of mindful decision-making. Moreover, accomplishing the goals resulted in a sense of mastery, which, in turn, led to higher self-confidence and increased emotion regulation

Conversely, I have worked with many teens experiencing high levels of depression and anxiety as a result of consistently striving to meet goals. In these cases, the goals actually created the need for problematic behaviors to avoid fears of failure and low self-worth. With these teens, treatment goals involved decreasing the importance of goal-setting and increasing activities whose sole purpose was deriving pleasure.

This leaves us with a dilemma. If goals can be both the solution and the root of so many problems, how can we encourage adolescents to set helpful goals without setting harmful goals? While there is no simple answer, there are several factors that can increase the effective use of goals.

1. Encourage a balance between goal-driven and joy-driven activities: 

Many of us have lamented the decreased ability for kids to just be kids. This trend is often indicative of too many goal-based activities. In both academic settings and recreational settings, we can encourage our teens to strike a balance. Take classes intended to help with college admissions but also some that just sound interesting. Set goals in athletics but also leave time for purely recreational athletics. Allow plenty of activities that focus on the fun of the process. In promoting this balance, we need to keep in mind that one person’s goal-driven activity can be someone else’s “just for fun.” I recall a teen once complaining to me when her family gave her tips to improve her skiing. Her sister was a competitive skier, while she set her goals in tennis and looked to skiing as pure enjoyment. No tips appreciated.

2. Encourage process goals rather than outcome goals: 

Outcomes are subject to many factors outside of our control. We want to encourage teens to set goals over which they have as much control as possible. Self-esteem and motivation can take quite a blow when we fail to achieve a personal goal for reasons beyond our control! For example, in sports, a poor outcome may be due in part to poor judging, bad weather, injury, or just plain bad luck. Achievements are a wonderful thing to celebrate, and, at the same time, tying all goals to outcomes suggests tying self-esteem and purpose only to achievement. 

3. Encourage setting attainable goals: 

Setting attainable goals involves two factors. First, we need goals that recognize realistic expectations. That does not mean we can’t encourage teens to set goals that push them. I have always loved my son’s coach’s approach at the beginning of the season. He works with each athlete to set both “realistic expectation goals” and “shoot for the moon goals.”

It can also be helpful to set goals in stages wherein each stage feels like a goal has been reached, not just the final step. For example, a student might have a goal of raising a course grade from a “C” to an “A.” This can be thought of as two sequential goals of reaching first a “B” and then an “A.” This allows for multiple opportunities for success. Additionally, a sense of accomplishment from the first achieved goal increases motivation to attain the second. 

4. Encourage mindfulness of the present: 

Often times, we become so focused on the end goal that we forget to enjoy the process. We can encourage our teens to have goals while also not allowing the future-orientation of achieving the goal to overtake the enjoyment of the present moment. I have worked with so many teens who are so consumed by the goals of getting into a prestigious college that they make their high school experience miserable. Goals for the future may take some sacrifice but should not completely overshadow enjoying the moment. There will always be another goal to set.

5. Encourage effective use of comparison: 

Many people are naturally drawn to making unfavorable comparisons. These include comparing to those perceived as more successful as well as comparing current status to desired status. We need to remind teens that the most effective comparison is “look how far I have come.” Though it is nice to keep one eye on the vision, it is important to keep the other on the progress already made. My own son can get very frustrated when he doesn’t achieve certain time goals with his swimming. I can absolutely validate his frustration. I also pull out some of his old times to remind him how far he has come.

Encouraging our teens in these five ways is meant to increase their awareness that setting goals is not all good or all bad. One of the most basic points about the effective use of goals is to remember the definition. Merriam Webster dictionary defines a goal as “the end toward which effort is directed.” Nowhere is the word defined as “a tool by which to assess our worth.” We need to remember that for ourselves and model it for our children.