Psychologically Speaking…
with Dr. Lynn Margolies

Welcome to Dr. Lynn Margolies' parenting and family support column. This column uses stories representing different sides of an issue to offer family members new ways of understanding a situation in order to improve the quality of family life. To suggest a topic, please We look forward to hearing from you!

Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.

Managing Yourself When Your Kids Disappoint You

Jake, now a junior in high school, is a creative, exceptionally bright, unconventional kid with a sharp wit, warm spirit, insightful mind and good-natured, energetic disposition. Not particularly driven or disciplined in school, Jake struggles with difficulty sustaining interest in assignments that are uninteresting or don’t come easily for him (typical with some learning disorders), but still achieves mostly average and above average grades. For a long time Jake did not seem troubled by these limitations. He was not competitive, and seemed unself-conscious and confident about his abilities.

Dad’s perspective:

When Jake started high school, his dad (Michael) was frequently disappointed and frustrated with him. Michael became increasingly focused on his son’s shortcomings, especially his “lack of ambition” and apparent laissez-faire attitude towards schoolwork. He alternated between preoccupation with Jake and disinterest. Fearing for his son’s future, Michael was determined to get Jake to feel more of a sense of urgency and develop interests, ambition and discipline. He became less playful with him – previously a vital part of their connection Jake’s dad often compared his son to Tony, one of his brother’s kids, who was a star pupil in school – as Michael and his brothers had been... “Look at Tony and all his hobbies and accomplishments – how come he is able to push himself and you don’t? I worry about you and how you don’t seem to have any interests and never persevere. How are you ever going to make it in the world?”… Secretly ashamed of Jake, at times Michael was pained that he felt this way.

Jakes’ perspective:

Jake was perpetually hungry for his dad’s approval and affection. He admired his dad and held him on a pedestal. In family therapy, Jake’s mission seemed to be to protect and defend anything his dad said or did that was called into question by anyone. Jake denied feeling hurt when his dad expressed disappointment in him or criticized him, arguing that his dad was justified. Notwithstanding, Jake was unable to conceal the heartbreaking shame and pain on his face at these times. Eventually, Jake too became frustrated and disappointed with himself when he did not measure up to his dad’s standards. He became self-conscious about approaching tasks in which he was uncertain of his abilities – afraid to try and fail. This anxiety exacerbated his already existing vulnerability to give up in learning situations where the enormous effort and frustration involved just did not seem worth it.

Psychologically Speaking:

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. 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.

Growing up in a high-achieving family of academics, Michael (an accomplished, highly respected engineer) was pushed hard to succeed. But intellectual curiosity, self-discipline, and perseverance always came naturally to him. However, though he eventually developed social skills, Michael describes himself as having been a “nerd” in high school – socially awkward, self-conscious and bullied by his peers. He recalls the loneliness of his teenage years with profound sadness and palpable shame and is haunted at times, still, by a deeply held perception of himself as undesirable and inferior socially.

Jake, by contrast, fit in with all types of kids and was seen as a hero at school. Though not always well-behaved, he boldly stood up for justice. Jake was unwavering in risking his own social status to defend other kids from being bullied. He resisted praise for these acts, viewing his stance and behavior as the obvious thing to do.

Conspicuously, Michael was blind to his son’s courage, social ease and popularity – often not even noticing these strengths. In spite of having himself suffered indelibly as a result of lack of social skill and versatility, he compartmentalized this experience, causing him to dismiss and/or devalue these traits in his son, and instead mechanically repeat with his son the way he was raised.

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 so it is never too late.

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.

Michael’s feelings and perceptions of his son changed (and so did the way Jake felt about himself) as he worked to understand his own biases and their effects on Jake. As Michael was able to reduce his anxiety about his son and thereby more fully embrace him, Jake was better able to accept help from his dad and others in developing his capacities. Ironically, he also became more ambitious and concerned about the future in a positive, proactive way. Jake reclaimed his happy-go-lucky way, and his relationship with his dad blossomed, becoming a source of esteem for him, and a source of comfort and growth for both of them.

If children come to see themselves through our eyes, taming our own anxieties and needs in relation to them will allow them to flourish. Then we have the chance to find what our children have to offer, which – though perhaps not what we had expected – is a gift engraved with their unique signature.

In this example, Michael was eventually able to know and feel an essential truth about his son that enabled him to see Jake in a new light. He discovered that Jake not only had strengths that he (Michael) did not, but it also occurred to him that if Jake had been his classmate growing up, Jake would have been the kid brave enough to have protected him from ridicule and bullying – perhaps profoundly altering his own life experience. In recognizing Jake’s gift, his dad stumbled upon a hidden bond between them which he had not seen before, giving him newfound respect and appreciation of his son.

Disclaimer: Material on the MSPP INTERFACE Referral Service website is intended as general information. It is not a recommendation for treatment, nor should it be considered medical or mental health advice. The MSPP INTERFACE Referral Service urges families to discuss all information and questions related to medical or mental health care with a health care professional.