As a parent of an adolescent, your attitudes, actions, and beliefs can have a tremendous impact on your child’s well-being. Your teen is experiencing the challenging process of transitioning from childhood to adulthood and, as someone who has gone through this journey before, they will inevitably look to you for guidance.
There are many different psychological theories explaining the impact of the parent-child relationship on your teenager’s long-term well-being. Though each of these theories has various pros and cons associated with it, what remains universally clear is that one of the most important roles of being a parent is setting reasonable, productive expectations.
By establishing a reasonable set of expectations, your teen will have a firmer understanding of how to become the best version of themselves. However, creating the kind of environment that is conducive to productive change is obviously something that is much easier said than done. Expectations are something that parents should try to carefully manage. This article briefly examines how parents can effectively set expectations for their adolescents.
Understanding the Importance of Expectations
Imagine a world where you had no idea what to expect. If you couldn’t be sure about having a roof over your head, having a loving family to support you, and having food on your plate, each day would be much more chaotic than necessary. At their core, having expectations makes the world a bit more predictable. Expectations help us transform the unfamiliar world beyond us into something we can reasonably begin to understand.
Even if our expectations are wrong, having a stable familiarity with the world makes it much easier to adapt to new circumstances in our lives. This is why having a reasonable set of expectations is so essential for the healthy development of an adolescent. Though there are many things in the future of your teen’s life that simply cannot be predicted, an established set of expectations can help them anticipate probable outcomes and navigate through new sources of adversity.
Common challenges faced by many teenagers include depression, trouble in school, divorce and family issues, social pressures, and difficulty forming a positive identity. Overcoming these sources of adversity is easiest when a parent and their teenager can work together as a team. When the world can be predicted in a manageable way, accomplishing goals and mentally developing become much more possible.
Different Kinds of Expectations
According to some popular schools of thought in teen psychology, expectations can generally be placed into three distinct categories.
A prediction is something that a parent believes has the highest probability of actually happening. Predictions can come in both positive and negative forms (though some negative predictions are best kept to yourself). Some examples of a positive prediction might be, “I believe I will have a loving relationship with my teenager” or “I believe my teenager will get into a top-tier university.” An example of a negative prediction might be something like “I believe my teenager will have trouble saying no to peer pressure.”
Unlike predictions, an ambition is something that can only be positive. Ambitions are defined as what parents want for their teenagers. These include things such as graduating from a certain school, participating in certain activities, and maintaining a positive relationship. Ambitions established by their parents are often the greatest source of pressure in an adolescent’s life, though when they are communicated and established in an effective way, these ambitions can help them achieve great things.
The last type of parental expectations are referred to as conditions. These are the types of behaviors that a parent believes their child should do. Expecting that your child keeps you informed about what is going on in their life, behaves a certain way, or meets certain standards are all things that can be categorized as conditions. In many ways, conditions are very similar to “rules”, though the difference between these depends on how they are communicated to your adolescent.
When these expectations are clearly established in advance, then it will be much easier to have a more reasonable conversation with your child in the event that the expectations are ever violated. As a parent, your reaction to the differences between your expectations and reality can have a tremendous influence on your teen’s overall state of mind.
Acceptance and Change
When communicating expectations with your adolescent, these expectations can generally be expressed in one of two different forms. An expectation of acceptance positively affirms whatever your teenager is doing is the status quo. For example, setting an expectation of acceptance might be as simple as saying, “I will love you and be here for you no matter what.” This is obviously not the same as saying, “you can do whatever you want,” but it helps create a predictable, stable, and loving environment for your teen.
An expectation of change, on the contrary, is a rejection of the status quo and expresses the need for your teen to modify their behavior. For example, if your teen breaks a rule or a law—though you will still love and accept them no matter what—it is important to communicate that, “this behavior is not something I approve of and you need to make a change.”
Creating expectations of acceptance and expectations of change is not a mutually exclusive exercise. While expectations of acceptance help your teen gain the security they need to be mentally healthy, expectations of change can also help them improve and become a better version of themselves.
Finding the Balance between Motivation and Pressure
One of the most important things about effectively creating expectations is making sure that they are realistic. For example, a realistic expectation might be something like “I expect you to try your best in school.” But setting an overly ambitious or unrealistic expectation such as “I expect you to graduate at the top of your class and have a perfect grade point average”, can be counterproductive and overburden your teenager.
Teenagers make mistakes and are always less than perfect (just as anyone who was ever a teenager already knows). But that is perfectly okay. By simply accepting your teenager as they are, letting them know that you will be there for them along the way, and communicating that you believe they are capable of doing great things, you will have created an environment that is much more conducive to their success.
Finding the balance between motivation and pressure can be difficult, but it is certainly not impossible. Managing your expectations of your adolescent involves clear communication, constant support, and a willingness to empathize with what they are going through.
Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).