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The Burden of Expectations and the Impact on Young Minds


Christopher was a bright young bomother_son1y who excelled at sports but was a little behind in academics. His parents were indifferent toward his sports performance but would be after him to improve his academics. He was not bad at academics; just not the best in his class. So after every long and tiring day, when Christopher would come back home, his parents would nag him about his studies. Eventually, Christopher lost interest in sports and became dull in class, gradually slipping down in academics as well. This is a classic example of how parents’ expectations from their children can do more harm than good and today, we are going to talk about the burden and impact of parental expectations on young minds.

At the outset, let me make it clear that I am not asking parents not to have any expectations from their children at all. What I am asking of parents, however, is that they reflect on whether their expectations are truly reasonable and whether it is right to impose these expectations on children. Parental expectations can help nurture a child’s sense of self-esteem and encourage healthy development; however, when these expectations are set unrealistically high or very low, children’s personalities and sense of worth are affected. Therefore, it is important to achieve a balance in order to promote healthy development in children.

What’s wrong with unrealistic expectations? Everything; some negative consequences of the same are:
– A lot of us have expectations from our children even before they born – which is really not a bad thing in itself – but these dreams and expectations can weigh down on your child, especially if you communicate these regularly to your children. An e.g., “I always wanted you to do this and that, even before you were born.” Yes, a lot of parents do talk like this.
– As a parent if you don’t appreciate your child’s strengths or always set unrealistic goals for them, eventually they will lose interest in whatever they do. On the contrary, if you set very low expectations or communicate to your child that you don’t expect anything out of them, you are in a way communicating a message that says you don’t think they are worth anything. Both, unrealistically high or unrealistically low expectations can have a drastic effect on the child’s self esteem.
– Not surprisingly, research suggests that children, whose parents impose unrealistic expectations, are more prone to failure, anxiety, and discouragement, especially when the child is not able to live up to the parents’ expectations.
– Parents expectations for their children, can very often affect the way children perceive their skills and abilities. Let me give the example of one family that I worked with. The girl was always told by her parents that “she is mean towards her siblings”; therapy revealed that this teenage girl was very fond of her younger siblings but had kept her interactions with them to a minimum because her parents always picked on her when anything would go wrong between the siblings.
– Also, if you have two kids, and you set different expectations for them, they will perform differently. Research suggests that if parents expect one child to perform better than the other academically or in other fields, that is exactly what will happen (Journal of Family Psychology).
I don’t need to elaborate on the reasons why some parents set unrealistic expectations. It could be stemming from their experiences, unaddressed personal expectations, and comparison of their child with another’s child, and many more. If you as a parent have set up unhealthy expectations for your child, take a moment and reflect about what could be the cause for you to do so.
As per the American Academy of Paediatrics, setting realistic expectations for children – ones that are not too low or too high, help them develop competence and a sense of self–worth. Setting realistic expectations also implies accepting children’s mistakes without being overly critical. Some tips for setting realistic expectations:
– Familiarize yourself with your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Having expectations in an area where your child is strong, helps him succeed better and keeps your expectations real. In the above example, Christopher’s parents could have set higher expectations for him in the sports field, since that’s where his strengths were present; instead of asking him to focus all his attention at academics.
– For expectations to lead to positive behaviours, parental rules and ideas about proper behaviour should be age appropriate – do consider your child’s maturity level and skills.
– Before communicating your expectations, discuss with children, the purpose and meaning of achieving certain goals which will give them a valid reason for living up to your expectations.

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Shobhika Jaju is a NET qualified psychologist who would love to be reborn as a shrink every single time. She is the founder of Silver Linings: Guidance & Counselling Centre, in South Goa, & hence is effectively putting her love for psychotherapy & her Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology to good use. Shobhika also works at Little’s School, Fatorda (Goa) & writes for several print and online media on a regular basis. She facilitates workshops on topics promoting personal enhancement & spreading mental health awareness. She is affiliated to the American Psychological Association, Bombay Psychological Association, Goa Psychological Association & the Movement for Global Mental Health. Her website can be accessed at silverliningsgoa.com.

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