Are Your Expectations Helping or Harming Your Child?

Research shows that overly high parental expectations and criticism are linked to perfectionism — and it can be damaging to mental health. Here's why and how to strike a balance.

Our kids are under pressure. Whether it’s pressure to be an all-A student, follow dad’s footsteps as a hockey star or play the piano like mom — today’s kids are feeling the weight of their parents’ expectations at an all-time high, and it’s impacting their mental health.

Research published by the American Psychological Association found that rising parental expectations are linked to an increase in perfectionism among college students, which can lead to depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders.

It’s no surprise to Jennifer Buswinka, a limited licensed psychologist in southeast Michigan.

“I work with a lot of teens and I also work with a lot of kids who go to private schools or go to school in areas where you see more parents who have really high expectations,” Buswinka says. Oftentimes, these expectations are unrealistic and, as a result, many of the teens are coping with anxiety.

“There’s pros and cons to setting high expectations,” she says. “If you set them too high, that’s where it can be problematic and lead to poor outcomes for children, like lower self-esteem.”

How do you know if your expectations are too high? And how can you strike a balance? Read on for Buswinka’s insight and advice.

Under pressure

Over the last nine years, Buswinka has noticed an uptick in unrealistic expectations placed on kids. Parents are pushing children to accomplish or pursue something that doesn’t align with their interests or talents, such as forcing them to play the same instrument they learned. But it can be a struggle for kids.

Pair any struggle with criticism and the child begins to internalize negative feelings.

Parents who are quick to critique a music or sports performance cause more harm than good. If your child’s team lost a game and you immediately tell her, “You need to get out there and practice more because I feel like you would have won if you listened to me,” you’re putting added pressure on that child.

“It’s not bad to give a child feedback. It’s not bad to go over the game and talk to the child about what they could have done, but it’s all about how you do it,” Buswinka says. “If that’s the very first thing we are always focusing on, then what does the child hear? They hear, ‘I suck. I should have done better.'”

Expectations extend to academics, too, like focusing in on the A-minus on a report card full of As. A child’s self-esteem plummets if they are unable to hit a goal set by their parents.

“Negative impacts can be lots of different things. Poor mental health, depression, anxiety,” she says. Or the child could experience eating disorders, higher suicidal ideation or higher levels of hopelessness and helplessness. There’s also a link with substance use and unhealthy coping mechanisms, in addition to sexual promiscuity among teens as they develop into adults.

“At a younger level, it can result in lower self-esteem, a child not having as many friends, feeling insecure, feeling unsafe, not having confidence,” Buswinka notes. These effects can result in anger and behavioral issues.

Not all expectations are bad, she notes, such as setting an expectation for following through with a commitment like completing a sports season because of a responsibility to the coach and team. By not allowing a child to quit when things get tough, they get better at what they are doing and can surprise themselves with their improvement. They may even develop a passion for it.

Striking a balance

Parenting style, Buswinka notes, can have an impact on how well your child handles your expectations. Two common parentings styles are authoritative and authoritarian.

An authoritative style of parenting tends to lead to better outcomes for children, such as greater self-confidence, being more well-rounded, and feelings of safety and security.

Authoritative parents are warm and loving. They set limits, actively listen, and are gentle but firm. They encourage independence and aren’t afraid to let children experience things. And, their kids tend to be more receptive to parental expectations and are less likely to internalize disappointment.

Children of authoritarian parents don’t fare as well. These parents adopt a “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy and tend to use corporal punishment. Their children tend to internalize high expectations from their parents in a negative way.

If you want to strike a balance, give your kids feedback, set limits and talk to your children. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What are your thoughts on the game? How do you think it went? How did that feel for you?”

When it comes to sports or report cards, be sure to recognize the positives and point them out first. Don’t nitpick every little thing — let some stuff go.

“The relationship that a child has with their parent is such a huge factor in how they development their self-confidence and their self-esteem,” Buswinka says. “If they feel that their parent is disappointed in them or constantly critical, that’s the message they are going to carry through life.”

Brought to you by Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. Learn more at flinnfoundation.org.

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