Goal Setting for Teens: The SMART Way to Success {Parent Guide}

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

Goal setting for teens throughout their teenage years doesn’t just allow kids to realise a dream or accomplish something that matters to them, it helps them to:

  • Manage their time.
  • Plan ahead.
  • Take ownership for mistakes and learning.
  • Feel good about themselves.

It’s not just about your teenager having an idea or wanting something.

Goal setting is a skill that takes practice to master and can bring great life satisfaction that isn’t all about material things.

Goals don’t have to be huge aspirational dreams.

They do need to be SMART goals. I’m going to talk you through what this means.

SMART Goals For Teens: What Does SMART Mean?

Goal setting can be daunting. If done without a plan or intention and can lead to disappointment or abandonment. SMART goals solve this because they are highly structured.

So, what is a SMART goal?

SMART is an acronym that spells out the steps required to achieve a specific goal within a certain time frame.  

a teen girl using a laptop computer on her bed

Why Are SMART Goals For Teens Especially Beneficial?

Your teenager’s brain is still highly underdeveloped in its ability to plan and organise.

Learning about effective goal setting will give them a fantastic strategy to boost their emerging skills.

Many teens feel they lack a sense of direction. Smart goal setting can be an effective tool for steering your teenager’s direction in a meaningful way that aligns with their values.

SMART goals: Framework for teen goal setting

The SMART Framework Explained

In SMART goal setting each step of the acronym is equally important.

  • Specific 
  • Measurable 
  • Attainable 
  • Relevant 
  • Timely       

Specific

The goal should be clear and well-defined.

a happy teen boy outdoors close up

Measurable

The goal must be quantifiable so that progress can be measured.

Attainable

SMART goal setting is a great tool but can only be effective when the goal is realistic.  When we set ourselves an achievable goal, we are far more likely to complete on it.

Relevant

Is it aligned with your values, interests and other goals?

Timely

Your teenager’s goal includes a realistic time-frame and deadline for what they want to accomplish.

Why is Goal Setting Important?

We set small goals for our young children from early on in their lives.  We encourage our toddlers to walk, step by step. A bit further each time. We teach our children to swim, reaching the other side of the pool. We give them incentives and celebrate their achievements.

As parents we want our teens to flourish, and SMART goals for teens are one way of achieving this goal.

Goal Setting For Teens: Self-Esteem Benefits

Setting a goal is the very first step towards what you have in mind, a dream or vision of the future, of something you want to achieve.  Goal setting can help to develop self-belief and self-confidence in your teenager.

teenager lying on her bed listening to headphones

We know that self-esteem is a fundamental component of good mental health. Teenagers need to build their subjective sense of overall personal worth and identity.

The teen years involve change, transitions & challenges. 

Trying new things can feel scary or overwhelming. Some teens feel safer staying in their comfort zone or “bubble”.

This is okay some of the time, but it’s only through getting a little outside our comfort zone that we grow and develop.

Your teen can do this by setting small goals.

You can read more about the benefits of getting out of your comfort zone in Dr Lucy Russell’s article: How to Build Confidence in Children.

Teen Goals: The Necessity of Parent Support

Setting a goal without following the SMART steps tends to fail and is sometimes connected with low self-esteem and self-sabotaging behaviour in some kids. 

If a teen sets themselves a vague or lofty goal and they don’t succeed with it, we might imagine them saying “see, I knew I couldn’t do it”.

a mother and teen huddled together in the kitchen

Setting realistic and effective goals enables not only the practical objectives to be met, it will also develop a positive pathway towards being fulfilled young adults.

However, your teenager will almost certainly need your support.

As I mentioned before, their brains are still underdeveloped and you should not expect even a 16 or 17 year-old to set a goal and follow all the steps successfully alone every time.

Smart Goals and Resilience

Sometimes, despite your teenager’s best efforts, they will not achieve their smart goal. There are many possible reasons including:

  • Their situation changed.
  • Factors outside their control made it impossible.
  • The goal no longer aligns with their sense of identity or personal values.
close up of teen girl thinking

Even in so-called failure to achieve their goal, your teenager can learn a huge amount. Failure will help them to adjust their approach and set more effective or realistic goals in the future. It’s a brilliant self-learning process.

In fact, working on a smart goal can help your teen to build essential resilience skills.

Smart Goals for Teens: Examples

Most teenagers in higher education would probably specify career plans as being an important long-term goal, so academic goals are likely to be a high priority for them.

However, with so many opportunities open to young people, this isn’t the be all and end all.

Personal growth and development are important areas for teenagers to consider too.

close up of a happy teenage boy

Smart goal setting should focus on the areas that matter most to your teenager. Goal setting is a great way for them to explore their identity.  Areas of focus might include:

  • Education and qualifications.
  • Health and wellbeing.
  • Faith and spirituality.
  • Family and friends.
  • Personal goals connected to an interest or passion.

Goals for Teens: Case Example (Kerry)

Kerry is a 17 year old college student and is currently working on 2 principal goals.

One is short-term, the other is long-term.

Short-term goals don’t have to be small goals necessarily, but they do need to be achievable. 

It’s also important for Kerry to keep an eye on how much time she needs to achieve her goals.

Her time-scale can always be adjusted however.

Kerry’s Long-Term Smart Goal

  • Specific: I want to buy a watch that can measure my fitness and wellbeing.
  • Measurable: My measurable goal is to earn around £600: enough money to purchase the watch.
  • Attainable: I will do this be working at my Saturday job for the next 4 months and keeping a close eye on my bank account.
  • Relevant: I want to be fitter and feel better and the watch will help me keep on track.
  • Timely: Within 4 months.

Kerry’s Short-Term Smart Goal

  • Specific: I want to write my personal statement for university ready to edit to send it off.
  • Measurable: The length of my personal statement needs to be between 400-600 words, around one side of A4 paper or a maximum of 47 lines.
  • Attainable: I have access to templates, advice and support at sixth form. I have dedicated time in my timetable to work on this
  • Relevant: I want to apply to 5 Universities for next year. This is part of the preparation for that.
  • Timely: The submission due date is the end of December this year (2 months).

Goal Setting for Teens: The Benefits

Goals are often outcome-focused and include objectives that produce certain results. For example, getting an A grade or landing the lead role in the school play.

However, the process of achieving the goal can boost a teenager’s confidence, resilience and sense of identity.

a group of teenagers playing tennis

We can’t always control outcomes. So, it’s important to have a basis of behaviour, effort and attitude at the centre of each goal. 

Ultimately, your child might lose out to one of the younger students who gets the role they aimed for, but they’ve proved they work hard in rehearsal and are reliable and committed.

A word of caution.

We must never set smart goals for our children.

We can set goals with them, by listening and helping with the practical details.

But goals can only be set by the person who is working on them, if they are to succeed. Forcing goals on a child will lead to resentment and failure.

Goal Setting for Teens: 10 Benefits

Working on smart goals can:

  1. Develop their organisational skills and broaden their work ethic.
  2. Improve time management and understanding how to prioritise tasks in an action plan.
  3. Teach them accountability and responsibility.
  4. Improve their self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation (self-motivation).
  5. Increase awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses.
  6. Open a dialogue between teens, parents, and teachers.
  7. Teach young people how to deal with mistakes and learn from them.
  8. Give them an understanding of how to make considered choices and decisions.
  9. Improve self-image and boost self-esteem.
  10. Give a teenager experience of clear success and knowledge of how to replicate this.

Academic SMART Goals for Teens

If your teenager is a high school student, getting good grades may be important to them. Here are some ideas for smart goals that will be useful for high school students, and college students too:

  • Getting a good grade in their next essay.
  • Completing a specific project e.g. their personal statement for college or university.
  • Improving their research skills by reading a particular book or taking a course.
  • Setting out a revision schedule for the holidays.
  • Increasing productivity e.g. “I will aim to learn 10 sets of Spanish vocabulary in the next 2 weeks”.

Goal Setting for Teens: What is a Stretch Goal?

A stretch goal is a high-effort and high-risk goal. It’s usually set to prompt an accomplishment beyond the normal standard. They are designed to improve performance, opportunities and experience but are usually really hard to achieve.

It’s best to set stretch goals alongside regular SMART goals. Be careful that your teenager isn’t setting too many unrealistic stretch goals and setting themselves up for failure.

How Should Teens Set Goals?

One effective way of setting goals is to write down a list of possible goals in separate columns e.g. personal, education/career and helping others.

Your teen can then select one goal from each column.

They should choose the goal that aligns best with their current values and that they feel excited or passionate about.

One important thing is not to have too many goals at the same time. Ideally your child will work on only one or two goals at a time.

a muslim teen girl, close up, smiling

When I was studying as a mature student, it was often hard work balancing this with busy schedules, family life and everything else I was committed to.  Having an end in mind and setting daily and weekly goals was crucial through this time. It enabled me to stay on track and focussed, with an awareness of deadlines.

I loved sharing my goals with my children.

It helped to demonstrate to them how goals worked. 

Family members joined me for the wins and were actually instrumental in me succeeding my goals.

A family member or friend can be crucial in supporting teen goals, giving guidance, encouragement and keeping things real!  

Not all goals need to be transformational, remember they need to be realistic goals.

Smart Goals For Teens: Getting Started

The following questions will get your teen started in setting their goals.

  • What’s important to me at the moment?
  • What do I want to do?
  • What do I want to work towards?
  • What do I need to achieve my goals
  • How long do I need to get there?
a teenage boy with a yellow sunset behind him

SMART Goals For Teens: Step-By-Step Guide

Here’s a really easy-to-follow guide.

  1. Write your goals down.
  2. Break each goal down. Use a SMART goal template to improve the chances of success. This is especially important for larger goals.
  3. Tell someone. Sharing our goals can often help us to stay accountable and stick to them.
  4. Plan your first step and then take action.
  5. Keep going.
  6. Celebrate and learn from the results, whatever they are.
SMART Goals For Teens: Step-By-Step Guide

9 Ways to Support Your Teen Set Effective Goals

1. Teen Goals: Encourage a Growth Mindset

Growth Mindset is founded on the observations made by Dr Carol Dweck in her studies of young children.  She observed that children who believe that they can develop their own skills and abilities are more likely to exert real effort. She defined this as a growth mindset.

On the other hand, children who believe their abilities are set in stone (“I am no good at maths” or “I’m not a sporty person”) are more likely to give up. This is known as a fixed mindset.

“The best way to treat obstacles is to use them as stepping-stones. Laugh at them, tread on them, and let them lead you to something better.”
Enid Blyton

2. Teen Goal Setting: Look For Quick Wins

When teens start setting goals, start small.

Sometimes, the fear of failure – especially if they are trying something new – can be a barrier to working on the goal.  

Setting smaller goals will be a great way to get started and gradually build confidence.

For example, they might set a goal to reduce their time on social media from 3 hours per day to 2.5 hours per day.

3. Understand Their ‘Why’ When Setting Goals

Show genuine curiosity in understanding why a goal is important to your teen. If we say something like “That sounds interesting, tell me more about it,” your teen is more likely to open up.

mum and teen girl in discussion

You might find that the goal is a response to something they’re upset about. 

You can validate your teen’s reasons for setting their goal while supporting them emotionally.

4. SMART Goals For Teens: Help But Don’t Take Over

By all means, provide some suggestions, but let your teenager set their own goals. They will be far more invested in achieving results if the goal is meaningful to them.

Remember, it’s their goals, not yours.

Make sure you don’t project ‘your dreams’ onto your teenager.

5. Help Add Value to Your Teen’s Goal Setting Experience

Where can you add value?

You know your child best.

If they struggle to make practical decisions you could help them outline costs and benefits of setting specific goals.

For example, if your teen wants to go out socialising at weekends whilst saving up for a trip, how will they finance this?

smart goals for teens: a father and teen at a table discussing goals

Depending on your teenager’s skills and level of maturity, they will need a gentler or more intensive helping hand from you. Help them to take small steps that feel easy to start with, and build up gradually.

6. Share Your Own SMART Goals

One of the best ways to guide your own kids in goal setting is to share your own goals and how you are working on them.

What is your motivation?

How have you structured the goal? 

How do you measure it and when do you know that you’ve achieved it?

Remember to share any misses or disappointments with your own goal setting with your teenager. Let them know what happened, how you feel about it, what it means and how you can learn from it.

7. Goal Setting With Teens: Schedule Check-In Dates

With long-term goals, helping your child schedule in revisiting and revising dates can be vital so the goal doesn’t slip.

It might be helpful to create a calendar or time-line with scheduled dates to check-in on progress. Consider whether adjustments, support or a re-design of the goal steps is required.

If your child struggles with motivation because they are anxious or have poor mental health, they will need additional gentle prompts and support.

8. Praise Your Teenager’s Progress With Their SMART Goals in a Specific Way

Instead of saying ‘great job’ or ‘well done’, validate the effort and process too.

For example: ‘I’m so impressed how you followed your plan to do your music practise every day. You kept to your schedule and now you can play your piece confidently in the concert next week. I can’t wait to see you play!’

a mother and teenage son having fun together

9. SMART Goals: Remind Your Teen It’s About the Journey Not Just the Destination

Encourage your teenager to engage and be satisfied in all aspects of the process.

Setting, planning, revising, achieving and ultimately, learning from. 

The journey is where the growth mindset can be built.

Smart Goals For Teens: Summary

Setting a realistic goal with a smart objective can be fun. Most of all, it can be an incredible learning process.

It will always work better when your child is invested in not only the outcome but the process and journey too.

Use goal setting as a way to build your child’s self-esteem and ownership of learning of something they are excited and interested by.

If you’re interested in further developing your understanding of your teenager, take a look at our article about the 10 best parenting teens books.

Further Reading

28 Brilliant Exam Confidence Motivational Quotes for Students

Child Mental Health: The Lifestyle Connection

21 Transformational Self-Esteem Quotes For Kids

5 Powerful Teen Self-Esteem Activities {+ Printable Workbook}

Children’s Self-Esteem: Three Actionable Steps To Build It Up

12 Effective Ways to Handle Your Entitled Teenager

16 Best Family Wellbeing Activities for Teens

Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

Are you the parent of a 6-16 year-old? Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.

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