Adolescence and the problem of parental expectations.

Unrealistic parental expectations about adolescence can cause emotional harm.

Posted Mar 23, 2010

Most parents, particularly of a first or only child, or a second child if the first has been particularly "easy," are unprepared for that child's adolescence, if they think about the normal abrasive changes of adolescence at all, they often assume these unwelcome alterations will happen to other people's children, but not to their own. However, denial is not a good coping strategy. In fact, denial is the enemy in hiding, parents refusing to prepare for the changing reality that comes with adolescence when their son or daughter lets it be known that he or she is no longer be content to be defined and treated any longer as a just a child.

Better for parents to develop a realistic set of expectations about the "hard half of parenting" (adolescence). A basic expectation to begin with has to do with duration. Today's parents can generally assume that adolescence will commence around ages 9 - 13 in late elementary or early middle school and not to wind down until the early or mid 20's. Must it last this many years? In most cases, yes. What with the increasing complexity of society, the rate of technological and social evolution, and all the knowledge and skills required to master young adult independence, adolescence takes a long time.

So why are expectations psychologically important? Think of them this way. Expectations are mental sets we choose to hold (they are not genetically endowed) that help us move through time (from now to later), through change (from old to new), and through experience (from familiar to unfamiliar) in order to anticipate the next reality we encounter.

To appreciate the power of expectations consider those challenges, circumstances, or relationships where we have no idea what to expect. Now ignorance tends to beget feelings of anxiety. "I've not faced a situation like this before!" "I have no idea what the results will be!" "I never know what she is going to do next!"

This is why a parent has a preparatory responsibility for children who are faced with some major life change. The parent needs to help them build realistic expectations about what the new experience will be like - going off to a new school, adjusting to parental divorce, getting ready for a medical procedure, for example.  

Expectations can ease our way through life when they roughly fit the next reality we encounter. They can facilitate our capacity to adjust to the new and different. Although we may not like the reality we anticipate, at least expectations can help us get prepared.

Unprepared, we can be blind-sided by what occurs. This is what can happen when parents expect an adolescent to behave the same as he or she did as a child. For example, consider three different kinds of expectation parents can hold: predictions, ambitions, and conditions, and what happens when they are violated.

Predictions have to do with what parents believe WILL happen. "My adolescent will be as openly confiding with me as she was as a child." But come adolescence, many young people tend to become more private and less disclosing to parents for independence sake. Now, when their prediction is violated, parents can feel surprised and anxious in response to the diminishing amount of comunication.

Ambitions have to do with what parents WANT to have happen in adolescence. "We want him to continue to be as academically motivated and conscientious as when he was a child. But come adolescence, many young people suffer an "early adolescent achievement drop" (see 3/15/09 blog) and school performance and homework suffer for resistance sake. Now when their ambition is violated, parents can feel disappointed and let down in response to the faltering motivation.

Conditions have to do with what parents believe SHOULD happen in adolescence. "She should continue to keep us adequately and accurately informed about what is going on in her life." But come adolescence, many young people become more deceptive with parents, sometimes lying about what is going on for illicit freedom's sake. Now when their condition is violated, parents feel betrayed and angry in response to more dishonesty."

Mental sets can have emotional consequences for parents when a young person violates their expectations. Then, feeling surprised, disappointed, or betrayed by a normal adolescent change, parents can overreact with worry, grief, or anger thereby "emotionalizing" a situation and making it harder to effectively resolve. This doesn't mean parents should just accept it when a young person cuts off communication, stops doing schoolwork, and acts dishonestly. EXPECT DOES NOT MEAN ACCEPT.

Parents must address these new behaviors to let the young person know that they still need to be adequately informed, that performance effort at school still must be maintained, and that truthful communication still must be told. But if these parents had anticipated the likelihood of these changes, a rational discussion and not an emotional encounter would have ensued.

The reason I write this blog is to help parents create realistic expectations about the journey of their child's adolescence. Parents who are adequately informed about some of the normal changes, tensions, conflicts and problems that typically unfold during adolescence are best positioned to cope with these challenges in appropriate ways because they expected these issues and alterations might arise.

But managing expectations for their adolescent's conduct is more complicated than this because there are two sets of expectations for parents to manage - EXPECTATIONS OF ACCEPTANCE to build trust and EXPECTATIONS OF CHANGE to influence direction.

Expectations of acceptance essentially communicate: "you will do what you can, you are how I want, and you should be as you are." Thinks the adolescent: "You love me as I am."

Expectations of change essentially communicate: "you will need to alter your conduct, you are not acting how I want, and you should behave differently." Thinks the adolescent: "You guide me as you think best."

The rule of parenting priorities is to set expectations of acceptance before introducing expectations of change. When parents demand change before establishing acceptance, they encourage resistance because change sends a message of rejection: "you are not okay the way you are." And when parents make acceptance conditional on change, they can really alienate the adolescent. "I will only stop criticizing your conduct when your attitude improves!"

Finally, parents must develop realistic expectations about how the relationship changes when a child becomes adolescent, or else suffer unhappy emotional consequences when they do not.

The parent who predicts the adolescent will continue to prize parental company more than any other is rudely awakened when the young person now prefers spending time with peers instead of time with parents. This parent can not make peace with this loss of companionship.

The parent whose ambition is to enjoy the same interests with the adolescent that were shared with the child is rudely awakened when differentiation from childhood and parents causes that similarity to be lost. This parent cannot make peace with this loss of commonality.

The parent whose condition is that the adolescent should continue to look up to and want to please the parent as in childhood is in rudely awakened when the young person becomes less considerate and more critical. This parent cannot make peace with this loss of approval.

These parents can certainly choose to maintain these unrealistic expectations, but they will do so at an emotional cost -- feeling abandoned, rejected, and disparaged. I believe it is better for these parents to adjust their expectations to fit the new adolescent reality and not protest normal developmental alterations they cannot change.

If parents can keep their expectations about adolescence realistic, then they reduce the likelihood of overreacting when times get hard. And this includes not unduly pressuring the adolescent by pushing unrealistic expectations for performance and conduct (all A's and no mistakes), criticizing anything less than perfection as a relative failure.

Next week's entry: Yelling at your adolescent.