In Healthy Parent‑Child Relationships, Expectations Are a Two‑Way Street

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Oct 7, 2018

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As a mental health professional working in schools, I am always asked, in workshops and meetings with parents, questions about children’s behavior. One of the biggest concerns is the huge gap between what parents expect from their child and what really happens at home.

This discrepancy is often the root of conflict in a family. Bridging that gap isn’t necessarily about having fewer expectations; it’s about recognizing that expectations are a two-way street. Children and adolescents, too, have certain expectations of parents. And when both sides respect the other’s expectations, and communicate their own, it creates an environment of openness and conversation. Kids will confide more, and parents will have more influence on kids.

Our own expectations are powerful – but hard to recognize

Expectations are often implicit suggestions of acceptable and desirable behaviours and norms. They are formed through observations and exposure to life experiences. Sometimes, expectations reflect our ingrained core belief patterns, making it difficult to be always conscious of them. We often become aware of our expectations only when they are not met, resulting in distress.

And at every developmental stage in life we have different expectations. As adults in a caregiving or parenting role, there are many common expectations we have of our children. In the Indian context, parents often expect children to be respectful, not to be very assertive and dominating, to excel in academics — the list can go on.

Expectations are a powerful tool that can influence an individual’s beliefs and thoughts. There is enough evidence, particularly in the Western context, that demonstrates the impact of parental expectations on children’s career choices as well as academic achievement. These expectations reflect parents’ thought processes and belief systems which are implicitly communicated to the children.

Everyone has expectations – which can lead to conflict

Children are actively engaging socially, too, and develop their own belief systems and ideas — it is their way of asserting power and constructing and communicating their identity. Therefore, sometimes, a clash of expectations may actually be a conflict of beliefs and ideas.

Other times, it is a clash of perceived familial roles; children wish to share important events from their lives with parents, a student once told me, but they also expect parents to involve them in family decision-making. The student emphasized that sharing within the family must be a two-way street, but unfortunately, it is usually only one-way: top-down. While the child is expected to share, she observed, children are not often involved in family discussions and they are rarely at the receiving end of everyday issues and information.

The student shared other instances where parents’ expectations to know what is going on in their child’s life often leads them to breach children’s expectation of privacy and trust: Parents often check phone calls and WhatsApp messages on their children’s phones, which is disrespectful and only leads to more conflict and defiance from the children. If parents created a comfortable environment for children to share, she suggests, instead of snooping, threatening them and dictating rules, children would be open to meeting parents half-way with confidences and expectations.

This student is hardly alone; many students and children have shared similar thoughts with me.

Environment determines children’s openness to parental expectations

Expectations can be met or respected only if the environment encourages children to be receptive to them. Mutual respect fosters the development of such a democratic environment, in which the child’s voice and agency are recognized and upheld. This can happen if one perceives the child as an equal and active member of the family, with the ability to think, reason and decide.

This perception becomes more and more important as children get older. As they grow and enter middle childhood and adolescence, children begin to develop a sense of identity. They begin to explore and understand social roles and their position in various social contexts and settings. Developmentally, this is also the stage where adolescents seek autonomy and wish to make their own decisions. Children may therefore challenge parental expectations and adult monitoring, resulting in what is commonly termed as ‘rebellious’ behavior. (For instance, children who often go with parents for family events and other celebrations, may start choosing to spend that time with friends or in pursuing hobbies. Parents often find it difficult to accept that children are deciding what to do with their own time.)

How to avoid expectation-based conflict with children

Having said this, it isn’t always easy to recognize the validity of children’s expectations, and parents often worry that doing so may lead children to start making entitled demands. Actually, in acknowledging children’s expectations, and the beliefs driving them, conversations will become healthier and decisions will be more collaborative, leading to less fighting – or at least more respectful and healthier conflicts.

It is therefore important to create a space for conversation and dialogue, built on ground rules that enable healthy discussion and effective decision-making. This family environment, too, must encourage expression and self-awareness within well-defined roles and boundaries for all members. These ground rules and boundaries have to be explained and discussed — not dictated.

Here are a few tips on how to do this.

Listen, rather than hear. This involves non-judgmentally listening to your child’s thoughts and ideas. For this purpose, create regular spaces for your child to be able to voice their ideas and opinions on matters that affect them. When you disagree, say, “I hear you. Let me take some time to understand your perspective and we will discuss this tonight.” This helps you to respond, rather than react.

Ask with genuine curiosity. Questions like “Who are you chatting with?” “What were you talking about?” “What grade did she get?” can sound like monitoring and interference to children. Whereas, “I’d like to know more about how you are and what’s happening in your life. Let’s spend some time together today to talk about this” conveys to your child that your expectations and questions are stemming from a sense of curiosity or concern and not from distrust or entitlement.

Empathize. Sometimes when children put across their expectations, it may seem like rebellious behavior and defiance. At such times, pause and place yourself in your child’s position and experience all the challenges, pressures and messages that your child may be receiving from different sources. Understanding does not mean giving in. It only means that you’re ready to take the first few steps required to reach common ground.

Don’t tell without asking. Before you make a decision that will impact your child or teenager’s life, ask them for their thoughts, perspectives and expectations. Telling or directly communicating your decision takes away the child’s agency and voice as an independent thinker.

Don’t breach privacy. Snooping into your child’s drawers, diaries or reading their WhatsApp texts and Snapchat is only going to make them more rebellious and less open to respecting your boundaries.

Don’t assume that your expectations will match your child’s. As parents you want your children to hold beliefs and ideas that you uphold, but you can’t assume they do. Breaking free from assumptions will enable you to listen to your child’s expectations without any judgment.

This article was inspired by Krisha Dedhia, a young adolescent who takes small steps at a time to make her voice heard and respected.

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Written By Lamia Bagasrawala

Lamia Bagasrawala is a practicing mental health professional who works primarily with children, adolescents and families. She also works in developing systems and capacity building for mental health promotion and prevention within educational institutions.

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