top of page

How To Deal With Children Who Aren't Meeting Your Expectations


Do You Feel That Your Child Is Not Meeting Your Expectations? Do You Worry That They Are Not Following The Path You Want Them To Follow? Do You Wonder How You Will Cope With This Unexpected Situation?

As parents we want what’s best for our children, we want them to be happy and thrive. When they are young, we want them to grow age-appropriately, and stay even with their peers. We want this for the sake of our children, but honestly, it’s also for us. We want them to follow a path we can be proud of, that allows them to fit in and that aligns with our values.

To be clear, we’re not talking about children who have disabilities in any way, simply that they are different in how they are pursuing their lives. There are many ways for children to deviate from the mainstream path we expect them to follow. They may not do well academically, or they may prefer a different sexual orientation than the one they were born with. They may choose a new religion or change political views, or they may actually have values that don’t match our own. Some kids just can’t cut it in school, despite getting help. Beyond unapproved tattoos and fashion statements, some of these choices can be hurtful to parents. Many families were torn apart during the Trump era, when feelings and alliances ran hotter than we’d ever seen. Religion often prevents parents from seeing eye to eye with their child, particularly if the child makes lifestyle choices not supported by the religion in which they were raised.

When They Are Young

When our children are young you think things will change, they’ll eventually find and follow the path you support. They will do better in school with tutoring, or they’ll outgrow whatever phase they’re in that you don’t approve of. They will come to their senses and realize you were right all along. When they refuse to re-write a paper you know is flawed and then they get a bad grade, you think they’ll finally understand why you wanted them to work harder on it before turning it in. This assumes you are letting them do their own work and not getting in the way of them submitting that subpar paper. Some parents have trouble with the concept of letting their child fail and learn from the experience. However, some kids just won’t rewrite that paper even after receiving a bad grade or be very upset about the getting the bad grade. You can’t make them care just because you do and because you want the best for them.

Sometimes they do come around to your point of view, and you look back on that period and think oh thank goodness that’s over with! Often though, they try on new ideas and as they get older you begin to lose hope that they’ll get back on track. Your track. They commit to their own track, leaving you behind to wonder how you’ll cope and still be supportive without communicating your disappointment.

When Your Older Child Doesn’t Meet Your Expectations

So, what do you do when your child is different, when your expectations don’t align with the reality of your child’s life? By the time they are young adults they have opinions of their own. In David Braucher’s article on “Parental Expectations: The Harmful and the Helpful”, he describes how he asked his class of counseling students if parental expectations were a good thing. The consensus was that they have a debilitating, shaming effect on children with emerging identities. Yet we also know that parental expectations can encourage children to push their own boundaries and they can benefit from the experience. The trick is to find the balance between sharing your expectations with the hope they’ll act on them, and respecting your child ‘s sense of self if they choose not to act on them.

I come from an educationally focused family, but when my son didn’t go on to college it was a big wake up call. I had always thought he would go, maybe not to an Ivy League school, but that he’d reap the benefits of a college education. Fortunately, my son had a high school counselor who was experienced and wise, and she helped me to accept him as-is, relinquishing my assumption that he had to go to college. I realized what was important was understanding what was right for him, rather than focusing on what I thought was best for him.

When do you stop directing your child’s life? Never, really, but you have to listen to your child. You may make recommendations, but that’s all. You’ve done your best to raise someone who makes good decisions. You will always be the parent and hopefully part of their lives. Your chances of a successful, enjoyable relationship increase if you let them lead their own lives and focus on your own as well. Your child is not an extension of you or a reflection of you. Both of you deserve to live fully.

Letting Go

This is not to dismiss the difficulty of letting go, however. When they’re born, you are so attached to that tiny baby, and from that moment on it’s a long process of letting go and allowing them to become self-sufficient, independent human beings. And when they do, it’s hard! My son and his wife came home for Christmas, and I cried when they left. I was overcome by sadness and the pain of separation. It was not rational (they only live an hour flight away), but once a mom always a mom. Now I knew what my parents must have felt when I’d fly home for a visit and then leave.

What Can We Do

Acceptance - First and foremost, acceptance is key. Accept that your child is who they are and accept that you cannot change your child or the situation. Acceptance does not mean resignation, which implies you will never be at peace and just have to live with the situation. Acceptance does mean that you will come to terms with this reality and maybe even embrace it, in your own time.

Mindset - The only aspect you have control over is your attitude. You can change your mindset and shift your negative approach to one in which you find ways to support your child on whatever journey they’ve embarked, despite your misgivings. Listen to what kind of support they need – be there for them in a valuable way, not just the way you think they should want you.

Notice your fear-based reactions and whether you actually have evidence that something will come to pass. It’s easy to go down that rabbit hole. Many times, my husband has expressed worry that something bad was about to befall our son, because he was fearful it would, not because he had anything concrete to go on. I’ve had to talk him off the ledge every time.

Hope - Hold on to hope – you never know how things will turn out. Having hope that your child will lead a productive, happy, well-adjusted life doesn’t mean you are in denial of the challenges you recognize for them. Hoping that things will turn out better than they appear at the moment does not mean you aren’t accepting the situation. Since you don’t have a crystal ball there is always a chance that life will surprise you in an unforeseen positive way. I would rather hold on to that possibility whenever I feel I don’t have control (which is often), wouldn’t you?

1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page