Tell me what you want me to do

Unspoken expectations

“Adults have these expectations for kids, and they think we know what they are,”

Said a teen in my office who gave me permission to use his words. He was frustrated as are many other kids at the fact that parents and other authority figures have thoughts about what they want, how and when they want things done, and think that kids know exactly what they are saying.

Many of us are guilty of saying “stop that” or “don’t do that” but then we don’t follow it up with “go do this.”  I noticed that when we are telling someone to stop doing something, they are either doing it because they thought it was okay probably as they have done in the past and don’t expect us to say stop. If that is the case and they have done it in the past, then why is not okay now?  When we want others to do something, telling them “stop” and not specifying what we would like them to do instead can cause more problems, (and there are times where others are doing things to get our attention or just to bother us, but that’s another story).

Real life example: A grandmother is stressed because her grandchild is hyperactive and will not ‘sit still.’ It is the grandmother’s expectation to have order, peace and quiet. The child is 8 years old and likes to sing and dance and be busy. The grandmother becomes frustrated because she is used to the peace in house and would like for it to remain. Telling the child to “stop it, stop being so fidgety” is not giving the child directions on what she can do, instead telling the child what not to do. It’s the end of a Disney movie and the closing credits are accompanied by music. Children are taught early on that dancing to music as an acceptable behavior. It’s the child’s anticipation to dance at the end of the movie. The child is being herself. 

The grandmother’s expectations are not known to the child, and do not match the child’s expectations or capacity at her developmental and social age. The grandmother’s expectation to have a child at age 8 composed may not be realistic for the child’s personality and energy level. This mismatch of expectations leaves the child feeling on edge, not able to be herself and not wanting to be around the grandmother, sometimes. The grandmother can offer the child to sing in a lower voice, dance and wiggle in her seat and even tap her legs to the beat. Maybe then, the grandmother can either see that this is age appropriate and allow the dancing for a few minutes, or turn it off prior to the credits since the grandmother knows she cannot tolerate it. 

Another thought, if the grandmother wants peace and quiet and the child is hyper, giving them options to do a few acceptable things that can keep them busy but quiet at the same time;  coloring, painting outside, and blowing bubbles outside, are just a few examples). This alleviates the cycle of the grandmother always saying, “stop it, you are always so busy, why can’t you keep still?” 

Unspoken expectations are a headache for everyone, and we are all guilty of it in some form or fashion, be it work or home relationships. Let’s challenge ourselves to change the way we communication and try telling children (and others) exactly what we want them to do when we can all clearly hear one another. Maybe overtime, communication and expectations will become clearer and the stress can be minimized.

Nikole Jiggetts, LCSW