Having Healthy Expectations

3 Tips to Help Your Kids Balance High Hopes With Reality

1️⃣ Model flexibility with the phrase “I hope…but if...”

Having expectations is a good thing. Being rigidly attached to those expectations creates stress and disappointment. You can help your kid learn how to tolerate disappointment in the moment, but you set yourself up for success even more when you accept ahead of time the possibility that things may not work out the way you hope.

This doesn’t mean lowering your expectations. It means reminding yourself that things may not happen the way you expect, and that’s OK. 

A good way to start is by modeling. You can say things like: 

“I hope there won’t be any traffic. But if there is, we can handle being a few minutes late.”

“I hope it’s not too late to get tickets for that movie I wanted to see. But if it is, I can catch it on streaming.” 

Then you can prompt your kid to think about expectations this way when they’re preparing for a school day, or excited for a holiday, or going to a friend’s house. What do you hope, and what’s true even if it doesn’t work out the way you planned?

2️⃣ Acknowledge when expectations aren’t met, and move on.

Like most things, dealing with unmet expectations is a matter of balance. Ruminating on disappointments for too long isn’t helpful or healthy. 

But neither is looking the other way. Sometimes when we know a kid is disappointed, we try not to mention it. Perhaps because we don’t want to create a bigger reaction, or perhaps because we feel guilty (which we shouldn’t), or perhaps because we feel they shouldn’t be disappointed over something so small.

But in practice this often results in meltdowns, if not immediately, then a delayed one for “no reason” later on. If we don’t have helpful tools to process our disappointment, we’ll find unhelpful ones. Not processing it isn’t really an option. 

When you sense your child is disappointed, you can label that feeling for them. “I can see you’re feeling disappointed. I’m sorry about that.” “That wasn’t the way you wanted things to go.” “I think we both wish that turned out differently.” Give them a chance to share their feelings. 

And then find a way to move on. Suggest an action step, like something to fix the problem, or moving on to something else. As your child gets more practice with this cycle, they’ll start to label these feelings on their own, learn that they’re tolerable and find their own ways to move on. You can cheer for them while they do!

3️⃣ Encourage kids to set their own (high) expectations

Everyone sets expectations for themselves, consciously or subconsciously. Encourage your kid to approach this process consciously, thinking about goals they want to set. Then act as their cheerleader, boosting their sense of what they believe is possible and being relentlessly encouraging when things are tough. Ultimately, goals we choose for ourselves are more effective, and less stress-inducing, than goals others choose for us. 

Some other tips for good expectations:

  • There are multiple ways to meet the expectation.

  • They’re not all-or-nothing. You can feel you’ve made progress without needing to lower the bar.

  • They’re mostly dependent on things in your own control.

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