This is a question that I get asked a lot out of what seems like genuine confusion. Parents say to me that on one hand they hear that depression and suicide in children is reported to be linked to parental pressure but on the other hand they think they should set high or at least reasonable expectations for their kids. I understand the confusion so I am writing on topic today to help make the distinction clear.
How do I know when high expectations turn to pressure?
The month of May in my private practice was a high stress month. It was probably the highest level of stress that I have seen in the kids all year. This seemed to apply to all ages of kids- the year wrapping up, finals and year end projects paired with upcoming summer camps and saying goodbye to beloved teachers all seemed highly overwhelming to many kids. My clients in high school and college with anxiety really struggled with end of year papers and tests So much so that I was struck by it.
So when I processed this with the kids and worked on stress management techniques I heard two camps of messages. I heard, "my parents expect to me to get straight A's" and I also heard, "my parents say they just want me to do my best."
Aha - therein lies a different message. One says I expect you to be nearly perfect and the other says your best is good enough. The latter message communicates that their child may get an A but if it's a B they believe that it is their best if they tried their hardest.
Okay, that example is straightforward and fairly simple to see, now I want to get into a more complex example. Let's start with understanding that setting high expectations for your children is considered a positive and effective parenting quality to have. YES- I will say that again- it is good to set high, values driven expectations yet not so much that they are perfection driven and not at all realistic.
Going back to the first example, if it's finals week you can say to your child, "I expect you to put in the hours to study, I expect you to avoid the distractions of technology during this time, I expect you will ask for help if you need it and I expect you to go to bed by 10:00 to get a good night's sleep."
In that example, you aren't saying that your child better make straight A's and that you know they are being lazy if they don't. You are communicating clear and consistent messaging about what makes a student successful during exams and final papers.
Your family values should be woven through the fabric of your expectations. Your values never need to be adjusted if they are clear, concise and consistent. However, you need to consider the age of your child, the situation (cleaning up the playroom versus driving a car) and adjust what it looks like to (for example) "be responsible" as they grow older.
Take another example of sports. Many children feel extreme pressure from their parents to be a star athlete. They are told to put in many hours of practice and to focus playing the game more than anything else.
If you desire for your child to do their best at a sport you can set the expectation that they attend most games and practices. You can also say that while they are there you expect them to be having fun, listening to the coach and being a supportive teammate. You can also communicate to them that they can expect you to get them to practices and games, have their uniforms clean and ready and be there to support them.
This type of expectations setting sets the stage for a child hearing that everyone plays a part in their sports. However, instilling into your child that they have to be the best, the fastest, or the highest scorer on the team simply sets up a child for burnout and resentment. One thing that teens consistently tell me is that they don't like it when their parents "coach them." Whether before the game, on the field or after the game- they hate it. This coaching is an example of parental pressure that usually results in resentment and a kid shutting down.
Most parents just want what is "best for their child." In order to achieve that you want to be consistent in what matters to you and offer to guide and support them but not impose unrealistic ways to get there. Some of the most successful kids that I know (I am defining that through their character, grades, school involvement, leadership, empathy and social skills) have parents that seem the most relaxed. These parents say things like, "just do your best, take a day off, go outside and play, talk to your teacher/coach about that..." In my head, I call them master parents. It has a very positive effect on their children to feel less pressure as much of the time they already put a great deal of pressure on themselves so they really don't need it.