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Help Your Leaving Cert Student Make CAO Course Decisions

Steps to take Before & After that Won’t Leave them Anxious & Second Guessing Themselves

While there are no official figures out yet on recent student drop-out rates, there appears to be strong indicators that last year’s first years had a hard time adjusting to college life. According to Carl O’ Brien, reporting in the Irish Times on May 28th, record numbers of students are presenting with anxiety, low mood, and loneliness. Engagement in class and extra-curricular activities is down significantly. This is not at all surprising, given their experience over the past few years.

While there are numerous reasons why students find it difficult to engage in college, and experience mental health problems, I’m focusing on an area that causes great distress to many Leaving Cert students at this time of year; an area that parents can play an important educational role – difficulty in making decisions. Decision-making is something that cannot be avoided.

With less than a month to make their mind up on CAO course choices and their order of priority, this is a hot issue. Here is an example of the inner dialogue that is playing out all over the country right now. It goes something like this –

This scenario could relate to: Engineering versus Construction Management; Nursing versus Child-care; Law versus Business; Interior Design versus Teaching. The permutations are endless. The conflicting voices in their heads are driving them crazy. Not only do they have to contend with external voices telling them what they should and should not do, but even worse is the internal conflict – what if I make the wrong decision.

Fear and decision-making go hand - in - hand

Leaving Cert students might be feeling apprehensive and even fearful about their CAO course decisions. This is normal when it comes to making any significant decisions. However, it becomes a problem when it leads to ‘what if’s’ that go around in circles and result in indecision, setting up internal conflict that can paralyse and make people incapable of taking action. Fear, conflict, and confusion reign supreme.

I’ve turned to a book called Feel the Fear and do it anyway by Susan Jeffers to help enlighten us on how normal it is to feel fear around making decisions and what we can do to overcome it.

Susan Jeffers believes that one of the biggest fears that limits us is making decisions. We’ve been taught to be ‘careful’ about making the wrong decision, because it will somehow deprive us of something. In the case of choosing the ‘wrong’ course it could be that we are deprived of job opportunities or money. How can anyone know that the ‘right’ decision will be any better? She believes that as we can’t control the future, we need to change the way we think. At the root of all fear, Jeffers believes, is fear that we can’t handle what life may bring. In other words, we lack trust in ourselves. Therefore, all we have to do to diminish our fear is to develop more trust in our ability to handle whatever comes our way.

What can parents do to help their teens make decisions?

Susan Jeffers provides a very simple model to help with the decision-making. For comparison, she presents two opposing models: the No-Win Model and the No-Lose Model. In the No-Win Model we catastrophise - thinking about the consequences in life and death terms. After we make the decision, we are constantly second-guessing ourselves, wondering if it was the right decision after all. Perhaps the other option was best?

In the No-Lose Model, both options are right. According to Susan Jeffers, each option provides opportunity to experience life in different ways, to learn and grow, to find out who we are, who we would really like to be and what we would like to do in this life. She recommends the following steps before and after making the decision.

Before making the decision

1. Focus immediately on the no-lose model

Affirm ‘I can’t lose regardless of the outcome of the decision I make. It’s full of opportunity’. Refuse to get drawn into thoughts about what you could lose. Only entertain thoughts of what can be gained. Regardless of the outcome, remember you can handle it.

2. Do your homework

Learn about the alternatives. Research, research, research. Talk to people – the right people, not people who constantly put down the possibilities open to you or who make you feel bad about your decisions. It’s important to have strong, positive people in your life.

3. Establish your priorities.

What do you want out of your life? Don’t worry if this is too difficult a question to answer at this point. Which path is more in line with your overall goals at this time?

4. Trust your gut/intuition

‘Gut feeling’ or intuition is something that we all have. It has evolved to help us make decisions. It’s always there whether we know it or not, trying to steer us in the right direction. But we must listen out for it. Constant busyness clouds intuition. We always get warnings but often we are too busy to notice. In order to get in touch with your intuition, you need a little time alone, connecting with yourself.

5. Lighten up

Whatever happens as a result of your decision, you’ll handle it.

After making the decision

1. Discard the image you have of what you expect the outcome to look like

Since you can’t control the future, disappointment is likely to lead to missed opportunities that present themselves.

2. Accept total responsibility for your decision

Look for opportunities and learnings

3. Don’t protect. Correct

Give it your all but if it doesn’t work out, change it. There is huge value in learning that we don’t like something. Ask yourself - how does it feel? does it sit well? If your quality of life is at stake, change your path. So instead of worrying about making a wrong decision, think of it as learning and find a more suitable path. Tell-tale signs include confusion & dissatisfaction. Your gut is telling you that you are off track. You need to find your way back.

Develop a winning mindset

As the first of many career decisions, choosing the order of CAO courses provides a wonderful opportunity to learn how to make decisions that won’t leave young people feeling anxious and second-guessing themselves. We can’t control the future and we can’t avoid disappointments. However, we can control how we think about something and how we respond. Developing a winning mindset help us grow and develop. Using the ‘before’ and ‘after’ steps makes decision making easier next time.

I would love to hear your comments. What resonates with you? What approach do you use to help you make decisions? How useful is your approach?

If your teenager needs help in making course or career decisions, I’d love to help. My contact details are: or phone 0868108192

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