Two sentiments I often hear parents tell their kids are:
1. “You’re so smart and capable of doing better, so when you show us that your grades have improved, you can have your phone back.”
2. “We need you to be more respectful and honest. When that starts happening, you can have more privileges again.”
These are natural responses to unmet expectations usually born out of a combination of frustration, an attempt at improving behavior and instilling positive values. Unfortunately these common approaches often result in short term compliance (and quiet resentment) at the expense of your influence and their growth over time.
Dealing effectively with misbehavior and unmet expectations is the ultimate tightrope walk as a parent.
Many of us experienced an approach to discipline that was either absent, punitive and/or abusive, unpredictable or all of the above. The conflicting messages we get from our well meaning friends, family and society often isn’t helpful either:
“Give them boundaries and hold them accountable with consequences and punishment, but make sure you listen to them and value their feelings. Be involved, but you also need to back off because they need to make their own mistakes and figure things out, but don’t back off too much because they might screw up royally and it’ll be all your fault!”
Setting appropriate expectations with older kids is an essential yet tricky endeavor. Below are what I call the 4 C’s of Expectations. If your child is not meeting an expectation you have of them, it’s usually because one or more of these are missing:
1. Clarity: Sometimes kids just aren’t clear about what’s expected of them. Examples of vague expectations are: Help out more around the house, be more responsible, don’t be home too late, try harder in school, be nicer to your brother. Whether at school, home or extra curricular activities, kids get confused and frustrated when their expectations aren’t clear.
2. Consistency: Frustration will ensue if they got to stay out late last Friday night but this Friday night they have to be home early for no clear reason. A common issue for kids living in two households (or one house with two parenting styles) is where one house may allow the kids to eat junk food with tons of screen time while the other prioritizes healthy food and limited screen time.
3. Collaboration: The more you can get your child’s buy-in the better. The older kids get, the more essential it is that we teach them to be co-creators of their own life, that includes learning to think about and own the expectations that they have for themselves as well as the natural rewards and negative consequences that follow. Letting go of control in this regard can be hard for some of us. : )
4. Challenge: The expectations we set should be at the edge of what our kids are capable of doing as demonstrated by their recent behavior, not what we think they should be able to do based on their age, potential or what other kids are doing. A 17 year-old may know how to hack the CIA and get straight A’s but not know how to deep clean their bedroom, talk about their feelings, or talk to people they don’t know.
I hope you don’t give up on the expectations you have of your child. My hunch is that, for the most part, they’re reasonable. Do your best to check off all four of these. If you truly feel like you’ve been doing these things and you’re child is still having struggles then it’s probably time to calmly and lovingly (not arrrgh! out of anger) pair down certain privileges and get some additional support from a coach or therapist that understands teens and families.