Ask any parent and they’ll tell you parenting is not for wimps. It requires courage to face the terrifying uncertainty of caring for a helpless infant; the uncontrollable tantrums of an oppositional toddler; the tears of the older child when limits are set; to the rage of the adolescent when their independence is challenged, and whose criticisms cut like a sharp knife to the heart. Through it all, love and discipline must hold steady and strong.
Do not lose hope. There are some things parents can do to make life easier and reduce stress. Our expectations are one of them. As a Clinical Social Worker counseling families and children for 20 years with the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg, I have seen an assortment of countless conflicts arise as a direct consequence of unrealistic expectations.
Take 7-year-old Kevin, for example. His single mother agrees to allow him to go to the nearby local community center to play hockey after school with this proviso,
“You are to be home at 6:00 for supper,” she reminds him.
“Sure, Mom,” he hollers as he grabs his skates and runs out the door.
But when 6:00 rolls around — no Kevin. By 6:20 she is in a panic and preparing to go to the rink when he shows up at the door.
“Hi, Mom”, he says, happily, oblivious of any problem.
“Where were you?” she attacks. “We agreed on 6:00. You’re grounded, young man. Go to your room!”
Kevin’s happy mood abruptly changes to sadness. Bewildered and confused, Kevin’s face drops and he slinks to his room.
What’s wrong with this picture? Mom is a loving mother but angry and frightened when he didn’t come home. She was also interpreting his behavior as disobedient, or at least, not taking responsibility for the mutual verbal ‘contract’. Hence the ‘punishment’ to ‘correct’ the behavior.
But is this the only interpretation? In the pressure-cooker world of parenthood, we all, too frequently, impose expectations on our children without taking into account two important areas: child development and children’s needs. These two factors are absolutely essential in understanding and, thereby, helping us place more age-appropriate expectations on our kids. This can go a long way to improving family relationships and relieving stress for all.
Let’s examine this scenario within the framework of child development. Learning to tell time is a complex process, and at age seven, the first question to ask is whether Kevin can even tell time? If so, can he tell time on an analogue clock (the hands on the dial), and/or a digital clock, which displays numbers?1 He would also have to understand whether the hands on the clock (or digital numbers) come before or after 6:00 pm for it to have meaning in the context of the situation, i.e., whether he is ‘too early’ or ‘too late’. He may be able to read 6:00 pm, but in and of itself, it has no significance in this case.
There is another important question to consider. At his stage of development, he may not yet have enough cognitive development for his memory to break through his intense concentration to check the time, especially during the heat of play.
An article in Scientific American entitled, Your Brain Has Two Clocks, Emilie Reas, (2013)2, a cognitive scientist, explains that we have distinct neural systems for processing different types of time, such as the circadian rhythm, or conscious awareness of the passing of time. They believe the hippocampus may be involved in this process, not only in measures of time, but also keeping a running memory of how much time has passed.
Dr. David Elkind, Child Psychologist and author of ‘The Hurried Child’ (2007),3 says that children have become the unwilling, unintended victims of overwhelming stress due to confusing social changes and rising expectations. He cautions us about ‘responsibility overload’ that places stress beyond the capacity of a child. This is one example of the many different situations that can arise on any given day.
A child may also be exposed to what Elkind refers to as ‘emotional overload.’ 4 Children are frequently taking on adult responsibilities and tasks in the process of changing family structures and lifestyles. For example, they may have to accommodate adult schedules like early mornings and long days in child care, or too many changing environments in a short span of time, creating stress due to ‘change overload.’ 5 These factors play a large role in the quality of parent/child relationships.
It is self-evident that children have needs from the moment of conception as they are totally dependent on the environment to sustain life. Nurturing the physical needs is the most obvious as these are basic for survival. Gradually these extend to include the more complex social, emotional and intellectual needs. And the needs change as development grows so it may feel like you are chasing a bus after it has left the station because by the time you have adapted to one stage of development, the bus has moved on to the next station.
How can parents help? Structure the environment as much as possible to prevent conflicts. For example, if you cannot be home when the child arrives after school, make arrangements that ensure a safe and secure alternative, such as a reliable neighbor or after-school program. And since he is trying to meet his needs within his developmental limits, parents can help by suggesting, providing or offering alternatives that best accommodate both.
In short, if expectations are too much — reduce them. Where change in life situations is limited — increase supports. Compromises must be the key word in reaching resolutions.
Childhood is a period of life through which we all must pass. Taking into account child development and changing needs will help to reduce the stress for children like Kevin, as well as their parents.
- Reas, Emilie, YOUR BRAIN HAS 2 CLOCKS: How do you sense the passing of time? November 26, 2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/your-brain-has-two-clocks/
- Elkind, David, The Hurried Child, 25th Anniversary Edition: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, DaCapo Press, 2007.