Most parents I speak to believe that they need to hold their kids to high expectations.

And it often boils down to two very good reasons:

1. I want them to have “it” better than I did – whatever that “it” is.

2. They need to learn how to survive in this hyper-competitive, fast-changing and unequal world.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

Both of these are totally understandable and even noble wishes.

But is it possible that your high expectations may be doing your kids more harm than good?

According to a recent study, high expectations may actually have long-lasting and “damaging mental health consequences” for kids.1

I know this isn’t what you’re going for and that you want the absolute best for your child. You want to see them thrive. That’s where these expectations arose from in the first place.

As a coach for teens and young adults, I get to see these unintended effects first-hand.

Often before we’re even born or as soon as our parents find out our sex, they form hopes and dreams about who, how, when and what we’re going to be. This is totally normal as we humans are “expecting creatures”. We have been blessed with this wonderful ability to think ahead.

And with this ability, we form expectations around gender, sexuality, identity, academic performance, sports participation, what they’ll study, what profession they’ll go into…

But where is the line between having expectations that promote the best in those we love the most instead of unintentionally holding them back from truly fulfilling their potential?

The secret is in how attuned to or aware you are of your child’s unique needs, interests, tendencies, and temperament.

 

The Harmful – Perfectionism, Shame, Low Self-Esteem & Feeling Like A Disappointment

Every parent has expectations for their kids. It cannot be helped.

However, it’s when these expectations aren’t attuned to their interests, strengths, talents or dreams that they can be damaging to their self-esteem.

This is because developmentally, kids depend on their parents’ reactions to them to develop a sense of self.

So when they’re treated with disappointment, they’re quick to internalise it and experience it as, “I’m a disappointment”.

This isn’t always the end of the world though.

If the remedy doesn’t ask the teen to compromise their identity, they may actually be motivated to do something about it.

But when what is expected isn’t attuned to the child and who they are, it can be particularly painful for them. They genuinely suffer. Not because there’s something inherently wrong with them. They’re just unable to live up to expectations that are sometimes unrealistic and not aligned with who they are.

Here’s what that can look like:

“My parents expect me to get A’s for all my subjects but I’m just not the academic type. I’m much more of a creative but they don’t approve of this.”

“My mom was very sporty when she was younger and now she’s so upset I’ve dropped sports to focus on my academics.”

“I told my parents I’m gay – I’ve known since I was 6 – but they sent me to Bible camp and paid the pastor extra to fix me.”

“I’m too sensitive and emotional. There must be something wrong with me because I should be able to control my thoughts and feelings.”

When a teen is expected to excel at something they have no talent, interest or guidance in, their inability to do so will lead to them becoming critical of themselves and over time, developing a chronic sense of low self-esteem.

What’s heartbreaking is that if your teen feels that your disappointment is in who they are as a person, you can expect a deep sense of shame to develop too – shameful of not being smart, strong, beautiful, thin, sporty or xyz enough.

These beautiful, capable, intelligent youngsters filled with a world of potential become unable to notice their own unique brilliance. And I sincerely believe the world is at a loss because of this.

It reminds me of Einstein’s quote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will grow up its whole life believing it’s stupid.”

To add to this, the rise in parental expectations over the last 30 years has led to a rise in perfectionism among college students.1

Although perfectionism isn’t a psychiatric condition, the lead researcher in the study, Thomas Curran, Ph.D. warns, it “contributes to many psychological conditions, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders.”

I’ve seen this in many of my young clients wanting to work through anxiety – particularly girls. There’s a strong tendency towards perfectionism, often driven by a desire to live up to their parents’ high expectations of them and win their approval.

Now, if you’re reading this and you’re a high-achieving parent with a strong streak of perfectionism in you, this isn’t an attempt to point the finger at you if your child is struggling with their wellbeing.

On the contrary, this is to serve you on your noble mission of helping your young one thrive in this wild world.

So not to worry, you haven’t “ruined” your child.

Regardless of how old they are, you still have tremendous power over how they feel about themselves. And you can use this to both yours and their advantage.

With a few small changes to what you expect from them and how you communicate those expectations, you can still honour your initial goal…

To encourage the best in them so that they may flourish and live happy, successful and fulfilled lives.

Here’s how your expectations can help.

 

The Helpful – A Sense of Belonging, Encouragement & Guidance

When I was a teen, there were parents who would let their kids do absolutely anything. Although I would find spending time with them exciting and sometimes freeing, these kids would often struggle with the feeling that their parents didn’t really care about them.

“If they actually cared, they’d be a bit more concerned, wouldn’t they?”

Good point. It may not have been their parents’ intention – they may well have cared. But to a youngster, that’s not always the message they get.

This is where your expectations are helpful.

They can communicate to children that what they do matters – a lot. And therefore they matter – a lot. This can give them a profound sense of belonging.

And when these expectations are better attuned to them, they can fuel the flourishing of their skills, abilities, authentic character and self-esteem.

 

Progress Over Perfection

One such expectation that I’ve found helpful for teens – especially those who grapple with the pressure to conform to perfect ideals – is “Progress Over Perfection”. It takes the pressure off having to get things 100% right the first time and all the time – or it’s not worth doing.

It also allows them the freedom and “safety” to explore, experiment and make mistakes without the fear of constant criticism or dreaded disapproval. And instead of giving up at the first sign of failure, it encourages them to focus on the progress made, adjusting accordingly and continuing with their pursuit.

It shifts the excessive value on achievement and the impossible standard of perfection to include things like curiosity, courage, growth, self-discovery, effort and perseverance – wonderful ingredients for helping your young one to blossom.

Their sense of self is no longer tied solely to how well they do, how much approval they get from parents, teachers and friends or how perfect their life appears to themselves and others, which puts them in an incredibly fragile state of mind as it places control on how they feel about themselves outside of themselves.

Now, they are able to derive an enormous amount of self-worth from their courage to step out of their comfort zones, their ability to learn, problem-solve and grow, discovering how capable and uniquely brilliant they are and seeing their lives improve.

This gently guides them to a more resilient and deeply satisfied state of being as they are now in greater control of the things that make them feel good about themselves.

Wrapping Up

When expectations are perceived as excessive, they can cause undue stress and stifle the development of your child. However, when attuned to your teen, your expectations can help them form a strong internal foundation for wellbeing, independence and success later in life.

And the beauty about attunement is that instead of having to worry about what the “right” expectations are – I see you, perfectionists – being mindful of your teen’s unique interests, strengths, talents and temperament will help you discover what is truly helpful for your dearest one.

As Dr. David Brauchner so beautifully puts it, “Parents inevitably suffer the loss of some of the hopes and dreams they had for their children. Accepting these losses and mourning them opens our eyes to what we can celebrate about our children.”

Here’s to you celebrating your child and their flourishing!

 

References

1. Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2022). Young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations and criticism are increasing over time: Implications for perfectionism. Psychological Bulletin, 148(1-2), 107–128. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000347