Inside: Changing my expectations for my teens into standards helped me fix our challenging relationship.
I’ve been listening to Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart on my morning walks, and she said a line that stopped me in my tracks. “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”
She also said, “Disappointment is unmet expectations, and the more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.”
And oof, this one was like a sock in the gut.
Expectations for what my family would do around the house.
Expectations for the way something should be celebrated.
Expectations for my husband to know what I needed.
And this was amplified during the beginning of the teen years, when my kids didn’t meet my expectations, when we didn’t have the relationship I expected, when their behavior wasn’t the way I wanted.
In my case, the line should have read: unrealistic or uncommunicated expectations are resentments waiting to happen.
We all know what it feels like when someone is so disappointed in us for something we had no idea they even wanted us to do, or worse, that we are incapable of doing. It usually ends with both parties feeling unsatisfied and unhappy.
Looking back, I believe I felt disappointed because I thought their unexpected behaviors meant I wasn’t parenting well. I think I worried that the behavior would get worse or spiral out of control. I thought their behavior correlated to how they felt about me.
I became disappointed in myself for feeling the disappointment.
I also started feeling resentful. Was it too much to ask for them to put their peanut butter spoons in the dishwasher? Could they just not kick their shoes off in the hallway? Could they just tell me the truth the first go-around? Could they just stop sneaking around?
Our relationship became a self-fulfilling prophecy with no end in sight.
How I shifted my expectations–and my relationship with my teens
The turning point for me to control this sort of icky feeling I was carrying around (and Brene talks about this too) was understanding that there is a difference between standards and expectations, and knowing the difference between the two can help you manage your emotions.
The crux is remembering that standards are more objective, and expectations are more subjective. Standards are an agreed–or communicated–way of doing something, while an expectation is a strong belief that something will or should happen.
So, when I ran into a problem with one of my teen’s not telling the complete truth about events, I recognized that when it came to certain standards–safety rules, knowing where she was, contributing around the house–those were important to me.
These standards were non-negotiable and dealbreakers, and my expectation was they would comply with these guidelines. I set specific boundaries and consequences to manage those behaviors. I tried to communicate these clearly and unemotionally, sometimes even having my three kids sign contracts to ensure we were both on the same page.
But then I had to deal with my personal expectations, maybe even hopes for the way I wanted things to be, such as wanting them to tell me certain aspects about their life or always keeping their room clean or their attitude about some things, and well, those things were on me to control.
The problem, however, is that my three kids are still just kids, and they have a lot of growing up to do. That teen brain is still developing, their life perspective is small, and their hormones are sending them mixed messages.
I had to remember that I was the grown-up, and many of my teens’ behaviors were age-appropriate. The change needed to come from me first.
How to deal with unmet expectations
Sometimes I let my personal expectations get in the way of seeing what was going on with my teens.
Instead of feeling disappointed, I tried to recognize the feeling and not engage (picking and choosing your battles.) A key component was focusing on gratitude for the good things about my teen instead of the little things that were annoying me.
Instead of needling them on the behavior, I tried to back off and stay available (you don’t need to react to every emotion your teen throws out at you.)
Instead of confronting them at every opportunity, I walked away (shut the bedroom door.) Related: Why Your Teen Feels Like All You Do Is Criticize Them And How To Fix It
Instead of focusing on achievement, I celebrated the journey (maybe they decided to quit something, or their grades weren’t up to snuff, but they survived a tough semester.)
I started giving them guidance on certain issues but allowed them to make decisions to end power struggles. I gave them more freedom in some areas. I let them fail a few times even though I could have solved it for them.
And when they crossed boundaries, there were a variety of consequences. Sometimes they were natural, like a bad grade or being late to something, and other times it was missing out on something fun or extra chores around the house.
And I noticed by understanding the difference between standards and expectations, my disappointment waned, and my attitude toward all three of my teens improved. In fact, this new way of thinking transformed many of my challenging relationships.
The teen years can be an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved
Sometimes our teens let us down. They make a bad choice or do a bad thing or fall short on their potential. It’s all part of growing up.
Our standards for them need to be realistic and within their control.
But we must remember that expectations can lead to disappointment, which can wreak havoc on relationships.
When I shifted my expectations and recognized that my teen and I are both learning and growing through this time, it took a lot of pressure off the both of us.
Reframing our mindset is the first step to a better relationship with our teenagers
My job is to help them be the best version of themselves, but the path they take to get there has to be their own.
My worth as a parent cannot be defined by their successes or their mistakes.
And when they make that mistake–which they all do–I can’t let my disappointment define them. I want them to know that I possess an unconditional belief in their goodness and that every misstep is a learning opportunity for us both.
Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. When you let them go, watch your relationship change for the better.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’m saying they’re worth it.
We loved Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown to understand the various emotions each of us feel and why, but we also recommend The Emotional Lives of Teenagers by Lisa Damour, which provides valuable insight into the intense emotions of adolescents.
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