Dr. Lynn Margolies
As summer winds down, many parents longingly await school, but not the frustration and disappointment it brings out in them towards their kids, or the guilt over these reactions.
Parents may have a clear vision of their child’s “potential.” When this is discrepant from kids’ actual performance, they may fear their children’s futures. Even more unnerving is when kids don’t share these visions or worries. It’s enough to make any parent want to shake them into shape.
“Potential,” however, must incorporate personality, developmental and emotional factors which impinge on resilience and capacity. For example, bright kids may get poor grades when they are unable to withstand pressure, or when energies are consumed by urgent concerns such as fitting in socially or fear of failing.
Why is it so important that our kids live up to our expectations of them?
The obvious answer is that we want what is best for them.
But what we see in children and what we need them to be may be confounded by fears and biases from our own upbringing. Unconsciously denied or disowned aspects of ourselves can be projected onto others, even our kids, and seen in them. When this happens, a conflict that really exists within ourselves is responded to in others. For example, if we feel trapped by responsibility and commitments, we may feel contemptuous of a friend who is making more frivolous choices - thinking, “I would never do that,” but maybe secretly envious.
Worse, if we see evidence of such triggering traits in our children we may get anxious - and then fooled into thinking we are acting strictly on their behalf. If we’ve always had to be “strong” - in control - or “perfect,” we may react to kids’ apparent lack of discipline, because we learned to experience these behaviors in ourselves as unacceptable. We then easily become determined that our kids prove themselves, which helps us feel less anxious, regardless of the actual effect on our kids.
I am reminded of a man - a brilliant engineer, from a family of academics. He was pushed hard to succeed, but later became depressed, lamenting about why his own son, a creative, unconventional kid with a sharp wit and warm spirit, wasn’t very driven or disciplined in school, unlike his brother’s kids. Secretly ashamed of him, he continually feared whether his son would make it in life.
Father described himself as a “nerd” growing up - he studied a lot but, bullied by his peers and socially awkward, he was lonely. In his struggle to help his son who had learning and emotional problems, he was pained by feeling ashamed and critical of him. In working with teachers, he came to learn that his son was a hero at school, risking his own social status to defend kids from being bullied and, though not always well behaved, boldly stood up for justice. The father’s feelings and perceptions of his son changed (as did the boy’s) as he came to feel an essential truth about his kid - that he not only had strengths the father did not but, also, that had his son been his classmate growing up, he would have protected him.
What are the effects on our children of our disappointment or satisfaction with them?
Children come to see themselves through our eyes. Research shows that brain and emotional development is shaped by the interpersonal rhythm between parent and child. Psychologically and neurobiologically, they form their sense of themselves and ability to regulate emotions from how we see and relate to them and ourselves. They internalize our reactions to them, which become the blueprint of how they react to their own mistakes, frustrations, successes, disappointments. Fortunately, brains and minds are molded by experiences throughout life.
We can detect when unconsciously disguised agendas have made their way into our reactions and judgment because we feel a determined, rigid and anxiety-driven need for a particular behavior or outcome from our kids. We can help children learn to bear frustration and disappointment - by bearing it ourselves - letting go of the temptation to rescue them from failure, and maintaining faith and perspective. Responding from positive motivation and acceptance rather than fear will help kids do the same.
Kids are most likely to do their best when parents set realistic goals consistent with kids’ interests and personalities, and focus on valuing and developing their unique strengths. Once the stakes are not so high, it is easier for kids to take initiative, test themselves and persevere without being held back by fear. If children come to see themselves through our eyes, taming our own anxieties and expectations will allow them to flourish. Then we may have the fortune to find what they offer which - though perhaps not what we had expected - is a gift engraved with their signature.
Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist in private practice in Newton Centre.