When the news about the college admissions scandal broke several years ago, the whole country was shocked. We learned that wealthy parents were helping their children cheat on standardized tests, lie on applications, and bribe faculty and staff at our most prestigious universities. Although the lengths to which these parents went are extreme, this kind of out of control behavior by parents is not uncommon. It is present at high school sporting games when parents yell at a coach, at dance classes when parents pressure children to excel, at beauty pageants, and in academics. Some believe such involvement and intensity are necessary for their child to succeed, but at what cost? And if your child is unhappy, is that really success?
Finding the right parenting balance is tricky. As parents we experience pride, joy, fear, and anxiety all at the same time. We all want our children to be happy, to grow up and reach their fullest potential, and achieve their goals and dreams. But what happens when a child’s dreams for themselves don’t match up with a parent’s dreams for their child?
From our nearly two decades of experience working with children and adolescents we have learned that rarely, if ever, do children enjoy high levels of intensity or pressure. In fact, placing high expectations on children to achieve can be crushing. They can suffer socially, academically, and emotionally. As Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Piepers describe in their book, Addicted to Unhappiness, children whose parents overly worry about their progress, hovering over and constantly directing their child, come to feel that their own efforts are never good enough. These children often grow up unable to make decisions or, go to the opposite extreme, and reject any and all advice from others. The Piepers also explain that children whose parents need to use their child’s accomplishments to supply themselves with self-esteem, frequently find it difficult to feel satisfied with any effort that does not result in a win or an ‘A’. Some children then turn to unhealthy outlets to express their feelings when their parents cannot tolerate seeing them unhappy or ‘failing.’**
So if having too high expectations or over-involvement causes such unhappiness for children, why do parents engage in it?
There are two different and separate motivations that are behind parental behaviors, each of them serving a different purpose. The Piepers define the first as ‘parenting aim’ which is when parents “respond to their child’s developmental needs”* by helping their child understand and learn about their interests, desires, and what makes them happy. The second is defined as ‘personal desires,’ which is when parent’s “intentions are not in the service of responding to their child’s developmental needs”* but instead satisfy the parent’s own personal desires for recognition or accomplishment. When parent’s personal desires are in control and governing their parenting decisions, their child’s emotional health suffers.
It can be hard for parents to know where the fine-line is. How to encourage, but not discourage, and how to support your child’s curiosity, resilience, and motivation, yet avoid power struggles. It is not easy because as parents, we only want the best for our children. We take our experiences from our own childhood and adolescence and try to be the best parent we can be from it.
The goal of the Smart Love approach is to help children grow an unconflicted view of their desires, make constructive choices, and turn to healthy relationships. So how do parents support their child’s healthy decision making?
• If your child is unhappy, evaluate where your decisions are coming from. Ask yourself, are you satisfying your own personal desire, or fulfilling your child’s developmental needs?
• When children say they love (the piano, baseball, etc.), but then meltdown when asked to practice, know that their behavior is communicating their true feelings. Children quickly learn what it is that their parents want to hear, but their behavior rarely ‘lies.’ If your child is having sad or angry emotions surrounding an activity, they are communicating that they do not like it or are unhappy about certain aspects. Try to find a relaxing time to later talk with your child and understand their feelings.
• Understand that having too high of expectations is unhealthy for your child’s self-esteem. Knowing what is age-appropriate for your child’s development is important so that your child can feel good about what they can accomplish.
• Supporting your child’s ability to make healthy choices as an adolescent and adult comes from allowing them to make age-appropriate decisions when they are young. This means giving them as many opportunities to make decisions as possible, such as what they wear, what they want to play, and what to eat.
• Only regulate your child’s choices when health and safety are involved.
• Meet their sad, angry, and upset feelings with love, patience, kindness, and compassion.
* Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011.
** Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work, and the Life You Want , by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., McGraw-Hill Education, 2004