Managing Expectations When Parenting an Adolescent

Realistic expectations can help, but unrealistic ones can be emotionally costly.

Posted Apr 16, 2018

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

What we choose to remember, how we choose to perceive, what we choose to expect, can all affect how we feel.

For example, it can make an emotional difference if we choose to dwell on past grievances, if we choose to focus on what is lacking in the present, if we choose to anticipate future sorrow, or if we choose to remember the good times, if we choose to appreciate our blessings, if we choose to look forward with hope. I believe Abraham Lincoln was right: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Our memories, perceptions, and expectations can all have emotional consequences.

This blog examines what can unhappily happen when one of these mental sets that parents create, expectations, becomes unrealistic making it more emotionally difficult for them to deal with normal adolescent changes. 

For an opening example, parents who expect the adolescent transition from child to young adult to last at most four or five years are usually in for a rude awakening when the process “drags on” (as it normally does) for ten to twelve years. Impatiently asking what the matter is with their sixteen-year-old (“Why doesn’t she act grown up by now?”), the parents might be better served asking what is the matter with the expectations they have chosen to hold?

Or consider parents resisting the transition from the child they had to the adolescent they have now and so are at risk of becoming communicatively, even caringly, disconnected. As the young person starts exploring, experimenting, and expressing different interests, associations, and images, parents may have to reset their expectations to keep up so adolescent change does not estrange them. “She used to like our kind of music, but I can’t stand the noise she listens to now! What’s the matter with her?”

Sometimes beloved expectations that fit the child can be challenging for parents to adjust. “For as long as we can remember, playing athletics was what he most loved, and what we proudly loved watching him do. Now, all of a sudden in high school he wants to quit team competition and learn to become a dancer! What can we do to get him back into sports?” When the adolescent changes definition; parents often need to adjust their expectations in response. 

THE NATURE OF EXPECTATIONS    

So why are expectations psychologically important? Think of them this way. Expectations are mental sets we choose to hold (they are not genetically fixed) 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 how much we routinely depend upon them.  We approach each day with a huge array of them in place to help us assume what we can count on and look forward to. To wake up with no idea what to expect creates ignorance that can be confusing at least and anxiety-provoking at most. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next!”

Expectations are anticipatory. They 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 foresee, at least expectations can help us get prepared. “I know when our last teenager leaves home that I’m going to have a hard time adjusting to the empty nest.”

This is why a parent might take some preparatory responsibility for a teenager who is faced with some major life change. The mom or dad wants to help the young person build realistic expectations about what the new experience will be like – going off to middle school, to high school, or to college, for example, to help with the transition. “My parents told me that finding my independent footing after leaving home and setting up on my own would require a lot more to organize, keep track of, and get done than I  was used to. And were they ever right!”

Or the parents going through a divorce are careful to let a younger child know what the new family arrangements are going to be. They are careful to do this because going through a time of uncertainty, there is security in knowing what to expect, and insecurity when one does not. “This is the schedule for living with each of us that you can count on now that you will be dividing time between two parental homes.”

The same principle of informed readiness applies when it comes to parents getting prepared for common changes to expect when their child begins the adolescent transition from childhood to young adulthood. To have a set of expectations that roughly fit the general transformation of growing individuality and independence is helpful to know.

THREE KINDS OF EXPECTATIONS

Unprepared, parents can be blindsided by what occurs. Consider what can happen when parents expect an adolescent to behave the same as he or she did as a child. For illustration, consider three different kinds of expectations parents can hold: Predictions, Ambitions, and Conditions. Now, what happens when they don’t fit the reality of adolescent change?

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 unmet, parents can feel surprised and anxious in response to the diminishing amount of communication they are given.

Ambitions have to do with what parents WANT to have happened in adolescence. “We want him to continue to be as academically motivated and conscientious as when he was a child in school. But come adolescence, many young people suffer an “early adolescent achievement drop” (see 3/15/09 blog) when academic performance and homework suffer from increased distraction and resistance. Now when their ambition is unmet, 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 with adolescence, many young people become more deceptive with parents for freedom’s sake, sometimes lying by omission (not telling the whole truth) and commission (telling an untruth) about what is going on. Now when their condition is unmet, 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 ENDORSE.

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.

TWO SETS OF EXPECTATIONS

Managing expectations for their adolescent’s changing conduct is more complicated than simply creating realistic expectations because there are two sets of expectations for parents to manage. There are EXPECTATIONS OF ACCEPTANCE to communicate constancy of caring, and there are EXPECTATIONS OF CHANGE to influence growth in a healthy 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 still love me however I am.”

Expectations of change essentially communicate: “You will do as I ask, you are not acting how I want, and you should behave differently.” Thinks the adolescent: “Whether I always like it or not, 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 alienate the adolescent. “I won’t stop criticizing you until your conduct improves!” So, first you guarantee acceptance, then you press for change. 

PAYING THE PRICE FOR UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

Both for the sake of unconditional caring and for the sake of healthy guidance, the two sets of parental expectations need to be realistic to be effective. So, in closing, reflect on unhappy emotional consequences when they are unrealistic.

When it comes to unrealistic parental expectations of acceptance, parents can pay a heavy price.

The parent who predicts the adolescent will continue to prize parental company more than any other can feel surprised and anxious when the young person now prefers spending time with peers instead of time with the mom or dad. This parent cannot 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 can feel disappointed and saddened 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 can feel betrayed and angry when the young person becomes less considerate and more critical. This parent cannot make peace with this loss of standing.

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 to adjust their expectations to fit the new teenage reality and not protest normal alterations that adolescence brings.

And when it comes to unrealistic parental expectations of change, the challenge can be a tricky one, particularly around issues of school performance.  

“No matter how hard I try, my parents keep pushing for more -- how I will do, how I want to do, how I should do better. Second place is never okay. No matter how well I score, they’re never satisfied, at least not for long. It’s never good enough!” Or: “My older sister was considered the smart one by my parents and so was supposed to do well; but by comparison, I was considered the slow one.  My parents were satisfied if I just got by. So I learned to settle for less effort and just passing grades. Low expectations of me were the vote of no confidence that I was given.”

What’s a parent to do? Don’t hold performance expectations of your adolescent so unrealistically high the young person cannot reach them and feels let down, but don’t hold performance expectations so unrealistically low that the young person neglects to actualize and express her given capacity. As I said, while this may sound simple, it is actually very tricky to do.

The management of parental expectations is extremely complicated during their daughter or son’s changing teenage years. Because these mental sets can prove so emotionally costly when unrealistic, parents continually need to check them out.

The acceptance question: “Am I keeping my expectations current with existing alterations in my adolescent?”

The change question: “Is the growth I am pressing for with my adolescent compatible with what is really possible and for the best?”

In closing, one of the best pieces of advice about the emotional value of creating realistic expectations was given me by a guy describing how he got ready to get back on the job after Saturday and Sunday off. He called it starting with his “Monday mindset,” and his thinking was this: “I never start a workweek with weekend expectations because I don’t want Monday to let me down.”

Next week's entry: Adolescence and the Power of Parental Supervision