Managing expectations of your super-achieving child

What can you do when your ambitious and driven child fails at something? A psychologist shows you how to deal with a mismatch between expectations and outcomes

child in superman costume with cape / super-achieving child

I was giving a talk at a school, when a young boy of 11 asked me, “What’s the point of striving to do well if I just end up feeling bad when I sometimes perform poorly?” My response was: “To enjoy working to be a high achiever, you must learn to manage high expectations.”

So what are expectations and why do we need them? Expectations are mental sets people create to help move through time [from now to later] and change [from old to new] with some sense of what reality they have to look forward to and what objectives they have to work for. People without expectations don’t know what will happen next and don’t know what to do with their lives. Expectations are a functional part of our lives.

Two sides of the same coin

Expectations are powerful. On the positive side, they can motivate performance when your child works to excel: “I have high expectations from myself.” On the negative side, however, these mental sets can have harmful emotional consequences when violated or unmet: “I failed to do as well as I expected!” So expectations can be tricky to manage.

You might think that having a super-achieving child will make parenting a walk in the park, but that isn’t always the case. What if your super-achieving child with high expectations of accomplishment is taking a major test? Consider three kinds of performance expectations that your child might bring to the exam: Predictions [how one thinks the experience will be], Ambitions [how one wants the experience to be] and Conditions [how one believes the experience should be].

Dealing with the outcomes of expectations

If your child has extremely high expectations, then in her mind the prediction would be: “I will be able to answer all the questions”; the ambition would be: “I want to get all the answers right”; and finally the condition will be: “I should make no mistakes”.

If the outcome your child expects fits the reality of what actually happens, then she will experience a sense of security from a prediction being met; a sense of satisfaction from an ambition being met; and a sense of rightness from a condition being met. The outcome is thus, emotionally affirming.

Suppose, however, your child ‘bombs’ the test [relatively speaking] and earns low marks. Now the unmet expectations create a dramatically different response. The prediction may result in anxiety: “I never thought this would happen”; the ambition may result in disappointment: “I really let myself and my parents down”; and the condition may result in guilt: “I have no one but myself to blame”. Here the outcome for your child is emotionally upsetting.

What you can do

  • As parents, you could suggest that your super-achieving children adopt one expectation: they may not always be the best, or perform perfectly and operate error-free because having frailties and failures is part of being human.
  • Another piece of advice parents can offer is: Beating yourself when you are down will not help you get back up; it will only inflict further damage, protract your misery and hold you back. Just like taking a bad shot in a sport you are good at, your job is to learn from any error of your ways. Let go of past performances and with a fresh resolve, focus on doing well in present and future assignments or tests.
  • Finally, parents need to help their child understand that expectations of accomplishment are not the most important thing. A more fundamental and valuable set of expectations comes first, that of acceptance. Here the prediction is: “I will do what I can”; the ambition is: “I want what I have”; and the condition is: “I should be as I am.” Never let failure to accomplish cause loss of self-acceptance.

Final words to parents

No matter how ‘super’ an achiever you are, you need to live happily with yourself. In the long run, your expectation of acceptance matters more than your expectation of accomplishment—and this is something that you must convey to your child as well.

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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