Changing Parental Expectations as Adolescence Begins

Expecting the adolescent to behave as a child can have unhappy consequences

Posted Aug 05, 2014

Growth is change.  And change is that revolutionary process that keeps upsetting and resetting the terms of our existence by taking what is the “same” and making it “different,” taking what is “old” and making it “new,” taking what is “known” and making it “unknown,” at least for a while.

Operationally, any time something starts (a beginning), stops (a loss), increases (there is more), or decreases (there is less) in our life, we know a form of change is going on. In general, periods of high change tend to be periods of higher stress because there is so much alteration to adjust to. Thus the the child's transformation in adolescence is often a high stress time for the young person because change is occurring on so many growth fronts at once – for example, beginning secondary school, losing childhood interests, coping with more social complexity with peers, and feeling one fits less well into the family than as a child.

As for parents, their child’s adolescence can give them a lot of change to adjust to as well. Around ages 9 – 13 when childhood typically draws to a close, parents are confronted with a daughter or son who has now become their early adolescent. And when parents are slow to catch up and catch on, or resist the developmental change, the determined adolescent often gives them good advice they may not appreciate: “Get used to it! I’m not your little child anymore, so stop treating me that way!” A primary responsibility of parental self-management is changing expectations so that they fit the changing realities of adolescent growth.

And now affectionate cuddling by parents is rejected as “babying,” parental joking that used to be funny is embarrassing, parental questions that used express interest become invasions of privacy, and participating in family togetherness becomes too close for comfort.

The old ways of Attachment Parenting and mutual holding on must now yield to new ways of Detachment Parenting and mutual letting go. Hence the challenge for parents is how to find ways to stay connected to the young person through expressing caring, maintaining communication, managing cooperation, and creating companionship while adolescence grows them apart, as it is meant to do.

Growing up requires giving up for adolescent and for parents. Neither one can ever “go home again” to that simpler, sheltered time they used to share. Often this letting go is harder for parents who mostly look back at good times they miss with their little buddy and close companion, while the adolescent can moderate sense of loss by looking forward to the excitement of growing up ahead.

The effective management of this transition from Attachment Parenting a child to Detachment Parenting an adolescent has a lot to with how parents reorganize their thinking to deal with this “harder half” of parenting. When they express upset at common changes in their child, from open to less self-disclosing (“She hardly talks to us now”), from considerate to more self-centered (“The only person he seems to care about is himself”), from compliant to more resistant (“Whatever we ask for gets an argument or delay”) for example, I usually ask “What did you expect?”

The irritated response to this question is often along the lines of, “So we’re just supposed to let these changes go unchallenged? Is that what you mean by letting go? Just settle for what we get?” The answer is “no.” EXPECT DOES NOT MEAN ACCEPT. “Expect” means altering expectations to fit the changing reality of a parenting an adolescent who is now no longer acting like a child. To understand why this alteration is necessary, consider the importance of expectations in general and then in parenting, in particular.

In general, expectations are mental sets we choose to create for a fundamental human purpose. This is worth repeating at the outset: expectations are NOT genetically fixed, they are intentionally chosen. They allow us to forecast what is going to happen or is likely to happen so that as we move through time (from present to future) or through change (from old to new) we can do so without utter ignorance of what lays ahead. To live in a constant state of having no idea what is going to happen next is anxiety producing. “I never know what to expect!” This is why, right now, you and I choose to have all kinds of expectations about tomorrow that we rely on to ease our transition into a new day.

Now consider parenting a child who is growing into an adolescent and how parental expectations that fit the changing reality they encounter in the adolescent can work for them, and how parental expectations that do not fit can work against them and against the adolescent as well.

Three kinds of parental expectations come to mind: Anticipatory, Satisfactory, and Obligatory. Each kind of expectation comes with emotional consequences depending on whether the young person meets it or not.

ANTICIPATORY EXPECTATIONS have to do with PREDICTIONS parents make for how the adolescent WILL behave. If the child kept them sufficiently informed, and the adolescent does the same, the emotional consequence is that parents will feel secure. However, if the adolescent keeps them in the dark for independence sake, they are likely to feel WORRIED, ignorant of what they need to know.

SATISFACTORY EXPECTATIONS have to do with AMBITIONS parents hold for how they WANT their adolescent to perform. If the child regularly did homework and wanted to excel at school, and the adolescent does the same, parents are likely to feel gratified. However, if the adolescent wants to skip doing homework and be content with just getting by, parents can feel DISAPPOINTED, let down by this lack of academic motivation.

OBLIGATORY EXPECTATIONS have to do with CONDITIONS parents set for how the adolescent SHOULD act. If the child willingly followed household rules, and the adolescent does the same, parents are likely to feel in charge. However, if the adolescent disobeys to see what family regulations can be ignored or contested, parents can feel betrayed by these violations, ANGRY that compliance is not being given.

At this detaching age, when the adolescent can exhibit “independent” minded behavior that the attached child did not, parents with unrealistic expectations can react with a toxic mix of Worry, Disappointment, and Anger. This response only increases emotional intensity and can cause the adolescent to feel punished for no longer being a “good little child.” Now parental upset at normal development can do harm. At worst, parents reject the adolescent by rejecting the change. "You used to be such a great kid! What happened to you?"

Hard to do, but what I have seen work better is this: EXPECT YOUR CHILD TO ACT MORE ADOLESCENT, and then calmly, rationally, matter-of-factly, correctively explain something like this.

“We understand that at this changing age you believe you don’t need to tell us much, can let school work go, and should be more free of family rules. These are normal attitude changes that often come with growing out of childhood and wanting to act older, and we expect them. We are not here to criticize or argue to change your thinking. However, simply because we expect some of this attitude change does NOT mean we intend to accept the behaviors that can come with it. You need to know, for example, that we will continue to expect that you shall keep us adequately and accurately informed, that you shall regularly and thoroughly complete all school work, and that you shall live within family rules, and we intend to consistently hold you to this responsible account.”

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Giving up What One is Good at Doing