Adolescent Excellence and Managing High Expectations

High performance expectations come with sometimes not doing well enough

Posted Mar 23, 2015

Car Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Car Pickhardt Ph.D.

"We won't put any pressure on you, so long as you don't disappoint us."

The young person’s question amounted to this: “How can I work hard to achieve highly without feeling badly and getting down on myself when I don’t do well enough?”

I think that to be a high achiever, a student must learn to manage high expectations. This is complicated, but it can be done. Start by understanding and appreciating expectations.  What are they, and why do we need them anyway?

I think of expectations as mental sets people choose to create to help move through time (now to later) and change (old to new) with some sense of what reality they have to look forward to and what objectives they have to work for. Without expectations people can’t anticipate what comes next.  "I have no idea what's going to happen to me!" They can be at a loss to know how to lead their lives.  "I don't know what I'm going to do with myself!" Lack of expectations can create emotional discomfort. Expectations are functional.

When it comes to personal performance, expectations are very powerful.  On the positive side, they can motivate achievement when a young person works to excel: “I have high expectations for myself.” On the negative side, however, these mental sets can have unhappy emotional consequences when violated or unmet: “I failed to do as well as I expected!” Expectations can be tricky to manage.

For example, think about a high achieving teenager with high expectations of accomplishment who is about to take a major test. Consider three kinds of performance expectations that young person might bring to the exam.

Predictions -- how one thinks the experience will turn out.

Ambitions -- how one wants the experience to turn out.

Conditions -- how one believes the experience should turn out.

Having extremely high expectations, the young person’s prediction might be: “I will be able to answer all the questions.”  The young person’s ambition might be: “I want to get all the answers right.” The young person’s condition might be: “I should make no mistakes.”

If the outcome this young person expects fits the reality of what happens, their response is positive.  There is a sense of security from a prediction being realized, a sense of satisfaction from an ambition being fulfilled, and a sense of rightness from a condition being met. The outcome is emotionally affirming.

Suppose, however, the young person (relatively speaking) “bombs” the test and makes a subpar grade. Now the unmet expectations create a very different response. The violated prediction may result in anxiety. “I never thought this would happen!” The violated ambition may result in disappointment. “I really let myself down!” The violated condition may result in guilt. “I have no one but myself to blame!” The outcome is emotionally upsetting.   

One expectation parents might suggest that their super high achiever adopt is that she or he may not always be the best, do everything perfectly, and operate error free because part of being a person is having human frailties and failures that come and living in a world filled with much uncertainty. All outcomes are multiply determined by many factors beyond a person’s knowing and control. So, expect that.

Another piece of advice parents can offer is this. “Beating up on yourself when you are down will not help you get back up; it will only inflict further damage, protract your misery, and hold you back. Just like taking a bad shot in a sport you are good at, right afterwards your job is to learn from any error of your ways, let the old performance go, and with fresh resolve move on to trying hard again.”

Finally, parents need to help the young person understand that important though Expectations of Accomplishment are, they are not psychologically most important. A more fundamental set of expectations come first and matter more.

These are Expectations of Acceptance.

The Prediction is: “I will do what I can.”

The Ambition is: “I want what I have.”

The Condition is: “I should be as I am.” 

The young person must guard against letting failure to accomplish cause loss of self-acceptance.  

Depending on their beliefs, parents might want to explain that no matter how “high” an achiever one is, to live one day to the next happily with oneself, maintaining expectations of acceptance are going to matter more than meeting expectations of accomplishment. 

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

Next week’s entry: Protective Parenting an Adolescent