Expectations and Emotion

Mental sets have emotional consequences—how people choose to think affects how they come to feel. Nowhere is this truer than with expectations, those mental sets people create to anticipate what is going to happen in the immediate future. When parents hold unrealistic expectations about how their willful child is going to be, the emotional consequences can be intensely upsetting.

“I never thought you’d do something like this!” explodes the parent who had never caught her willful twelve-year-old in a lie before. This is not what the parent expected from an oldest child always known to tell the truth. In consequence of this unexpected change in behavior, the parent can feel a painful combination of betrayal, anxiety, and disappointment.

If the parent had factored lying into his expectations about changes in his child’s early adolescence, however, he might have anticipated an increased incidence of dishonesty to get away with doing the forbidden for freedom’s sake. Expect does not mean accept. The parent is still obliged to deal with the misbehavior of lying, but expecting that possibility would have kept him from being caught off guard, being emotionally thrown for a loop, and risking overreacting and making the situation worse.

To repeat, expect is not accept. There is much conduct of your willful child that you may not accept, but by expecting the possibility of these behaviors, you reduce the likelihood that such willful choices, changes, and characteristics catch you unprepared and cause you to compound your corrective response with emotional upset.

The Nature of Expectations

How do expectations work? Expectations are beliefs you construct to move through life with its experiences and changes. Without the capacity to form any expectations, we would be in a state of ignorance and consequent confusion much of the time, which would be very frightening and cause significant insecurity. The price for this confusion is anxiety.

For a lot of willful children, many expectations must be met before happiness can be enjoyed. There are predictions to fulfill, ambitions to be satisfied, conditions to be lived up to. The older such children grow, the more discontent comes their way because, as the world grows larger, their command is reduced. They need to become less controlling, not more, or more unhappiness will be their consequence.

Consider three common kinds of parental expectations.

  • Predictions are what you choose to believe will happen. “I will be able to count on my child’s cooperation.” As long as this prediction works, you feel secure.

  • Ambitions are what you choose to want to have happen. “I want my child to be considerate of my needs.” As long as this ambition works, you feel fulfilled.

  • Conditions are what you choose to believe should happen. “My child should always follow family rules.” As long as this condition works, you feel satisfied.

As long as expectations you choose to hold fit the reality you have, even when you don’t like that reality, you will be prepared for what happens.

When Expectations Are Unrealistic

Suppose the expectations described above held up with your first child, who has generally been compliant and easy to parent. Now along comes your second offspring, a willful child. When you apply expectations of child number one, for whom these expectations have been realistic, to your willful child, they do not seem to fit.

  • Now your prediction is more frequently violated. Your willful child is at least as often resistant as she is cooperative, and on these resistant occasions, you find yourself feeling surprised, insecure, and anxious.

  • Now your ambition is more frequently violated. Your willful child is often more focused on her own wants than she is considerate of your needs, and on these self-centered occasions, you find yourself feeling disappointed, sad, and hurt.

  • Now your condition is more frequently violated. Your willful child is more often focused on testing and breaking rules than she is compliant, and on these oppositional occasions, you find yourself feeling betrayed, offended, and angry.

Violated expectations are a good example of how mental sets can have powerful emotional consequences. If you continue to hold unrealistic expectations about your willful child, you will be in a state of upset most of the time. Better to adjust your expectations to fit the reality of this self-determined child: sometimes she will be resistant, sometimes she won’t be as considerate of your needs as you want, and sometimes she will refuse to follow family rules. Again, this doesn’t mean that you accept resistance, self-centeredness, and rule breaking and let them go. You do not. But when they occur, you are not blind-sided; you expected some of these behaviors, so you don’t double up, adding your own emotional upset to your disciplinary response.

It is one purpose of this book to propose realistic expectations about what it’s like to have a willful child and to reduce the emotional costs of holding unrealistic expectations, so you can more calmly and effectively cope with the challenges involved in raising such a child.

Parents need to keep their own expectations of their child’s interests in line with those of the child. When parents develop higher expectations than the child’s (because of their own investment in the activity), if the child loses interest, they may feel anxious, disappointed, or angry, because their expectations have been violated. “I guess we cared more about her being involved in soccer than she did. That’s why we got so upset when she quit.”

  1. Home
  2. Parenting Strong-Willed Children
  3. Maintaining Emotional Sobriety
  4. Expectations and Emotion
Visit other About.com sites: