As much as anyone might wish they could peer into the future, no one has a crystal ball. Fear of the unknown is a significant stressor because our ability to plan for the future is limited and thus we feel less in control of our lives. Many of us cope with this unsettling fear by creating expectations. We approach every day with a huge array of them in place to help us assume what we can count on and look forward to. These predictions relieve stress because they give us opportunities to take back that sense of control. We can prepare for what we expect will happen. When we lack the coping strategies needed to manage these expectations, however, we will likely feel anxious and overwhelmed by them.
Expectations can be soothing. Parents going through divorce are careful to let a younger child know what the new family arrangements are going to be. Divorce is a time of tremendous uncertainty and anxiety for every member of the family (fear of the unknown is one reason why many couples stay unhappily married). A child will feel more secure when they know what to expect.
While realistic expectations can help, unrealistic ones can be emotionally costly. What we choose to remember, how we choose to perceive, what we choose to expect, can all affect how we feel. When we expect that our child will face a very competitive job market after college we may experience a powerful measure of anxiety. We love our children and don’t want them to have to struggle to earn a living. Very often, and inadvertently, our anxiety is transferred to our child as we push her towards academic excellence and an Ivy League education. In many cases these expectations can be useful if it motivates our child to rise and meet the challenge. In some cases however, our child does not have the ability to cope with more demanding expectations. He distracts himself from the ensuing anxiety with video games or other escapes that have familiar rules and instantaneously gratifying rewards. These distractions provide our child with a sense of control that they are not currently feeling in other areas of their life.
The key is identifying the expectation “sweet spot.” Don’t hold performance expectations so unrealistically low that the young person neglects to actualize and express her given capacity. On the other hand, don’t hold performance expectations so unrealistically high that the young person cannot reach them and feels let down. While this may sound simple, it is actually very tricky to do. We should balance our expectations with attention towards helping our child to develop a greater breadth of coping strategies as this will enable them to successfully take on more.
Above all else, healthy parental guidance should involve a communicated sense of unconditional caring. This means that expectations need to be realistic in order to be effective. If a child feels that their efforts are never good enough to satisfy their parents it might negatively affect their self esteem and leave them a sense of learned helplessness. They may stop trying because they feel that no matter how hard they try their parents will never be satisfied and always expect more.
Jeremy Skow, LMHC, MBA maintains a private practice in Garden City, NY. Contact him at 516-322-9133, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.mentalhealthcounselingny.com.