How To Avoid the First Semester College Crisis: Teach Agency

January is a time when people commit to change, so it doesn’t surprise me that for therapists this is their busy time. But some are busy with a relatively new clientele: kids who experience the first semester college crisis and aren’t going back. Their reasons vary, but a common theme is that they can’t function without the support of their parents and communities. Some say they need more grit. This may sound harsh, but it’s a reality.  What they are lacking is agency, one of the most important traits to possess in today’s world. Good news: we can teach agency. 

What is agency?

I define agency as an all-encompassing skill. It includes self control, self possession, resourcefulness, confidence, tenacity and the ability to communicate one’s needs.

People who have agency can take things on and are both confident and resourceful about how to get things done. They may ask for help, but then they take action based on the help they receive.

People with agency are engaged. When given a chance, they speak or act on their passions.

How does a kid with agency behave?

Agency can look a number of ways. I’ll share some of the ways teens have demonstrated their agency:

  • The student who is told to study and realizes she doesn’t know how. She googles studying, watches a TED talk on studying, and then implements the process.
  • The teen who asks how to write a paper, is given advice, and then goes home and writes a rough draft by himself even if it sucks.
  • The angsty teen who gets up on Black Friday and  stands in line for a doorbuster. Then he spends his own money on it!
  • The young entrepreneur who used $500 in seed money to start a sneaker trading business (yes that’s a thing now). He’s making a fortune, but he still gets C’s in history class.
  • The girl who organizes a trip to a concert or the city for all her friends. (She finds out when tickets are going on sale, gets the payment together, organizes transportation. And she can speak out her own safety plan in case things get hairy).

It’s important to note that agency looks different in each of these examples. And, notice that only a few of these relate to academics, which we have placed more value on as a society than agency.

When can I start to teach agency?

As soon as possible. Seriously. It’s never too early to teach agency. Start listening to the things your kids desire and guiding them to figure things out for themselves. If your five year old wants to cook, give her a butter knife and a cucumber and let her start chopping. Or if your ten year old likes money, ask him how he wants to make money. If he wants to learn about the stock market and you don’t know that much about it, steer him to a how-to book, or a podcast for beginners. Better yet, listen together. Leverage your technological resources!

How do I know if my teen has agency?

  • Watch: Teens are interesting creatures to observe because they can be moody as hell one minute and then totally engaged the next. If they have agency, they get into stuff and they go deep. If your teen is doing stuff to cultivate interests, even if they are interests you don’t care about or you judge as time-sucks, that’s a good sign. At that point, ask him about those interests and listen without judgement to his long-winded explanation of why his new video game that he bought for himself and has mastered is amazing.
  • Listen:  You teen may frequently ask for help. If you are in the habit of solving the problem, ask how your teen something like, “What do you think are the first steps you need to take to _____________?” And then listen to what they say. If they say, “I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking!”, then remind them that you’ll problem solve with them. But stay curious about how they would go about doing things for themselves, instead of solving the problem for them.

I don’t know how to teach agency. Help!

If this is you, it means you may feel trapped in the overparenting cycle. The first thing to ask yourself is where can I step back? What aspects of your child’s life are you way too involved in? If you are doing the homework, doing all the chores and emailing all the teachers while you kid is posting on Instagram, it’s time for a change!

Wrap up:

There is a lot to say about agency. But this post is to introduce the notion of agency, as an all-encompassing skill that we may hear referred to as grit. Agency is the combination of confidence that one can make things happen and the resourcefulness to carve a path forward where there isn’t one.

In my less polished moments, I refer to agency as the ability to get sh#t done.

It’s not too late to teach agency. Watch and listen for your teen’s engagement in any aspect of life. If he found a way to get what he wanted to get the latest game or learn about the newest phone, great. Remind him of this  when he is struggling. All the same tools he used to figure out solutions to the things he wanted can be applied again. Resist the urge to do it for him so that when the time comes for him to fly the coop, he has confidence in his wings.


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