As you get to know Jackie, Teddy’s mother, you learn that she has very high expectations for her son. She expects him to feed himself without getting messy, sit during children’s church on Wednesday and Sunday, and begin potty training – but Teddy is only 19 months old. He’s just learned to walk a few months ago and is eager to move. She tells you that Teddy is just being stubborn when he won’t do these things and she’s feeling really frustrated. Other than mild motor delays, Teddy’s development is typical for his age. He may not qualify for EI services much longer, and you are concerned that Jackie’s expectations are too high to be healthy for Teddy.
What do you do?
High Expectations…or Unrealistic Expectations?
Many parents have high expectations for their children. In fact, having high expectations is generally regarded as a good thing for encouraging children to reach their greatest potential. However, there is a line that can be crossed between having realistic, developmentally appropriate expectations and unrealistic expectations that either push the child too hard or demand that the child behave in ways that just aren’t possible for him yet. Having unrealistic expectations is stressful for the child and the parent – and the early interventionist as well. If you find yourself working with Teddy and Jackie, here are three strategies to try:
Ask about what the parent knows about development– Taking the time to ask the parent what she knows about when children typically achieve these milestones is a great place to start.
Discuss the smaller steps that lead to the milestone – Once you know what the parent knows, you can talk about the smaller steps the child needs to learn to get there, emphasizing what is developmentally appropriate for her child. Individualizing this discussion in important so that the parent feels “heard.”
Explore why these milestones are important to the parent – Sometimes unreasonably high expectations are rooted in a lack of information about development, or a deeper concern about the child’s developmental differences. Rather than judging Teddy’s mother, step back and explore why she wants him to do these things. Maybe his behavior at church embarrasses her and she’s not sure what to do. Maybe she doesn’t like getting messy herself so doesn’t want him messy either. Maybe diapers are so expensive that she is eager for him to potty train. Explore the roots of the expectation and help her find a way to manage them. This could lessen the stress on her, and Teddy too.
High Expectations…or Hopes for the Child’s Future?
Another issue with expectations can crop up when we perceive a parent’s expectations as too high because we aren’t sure if a child will ever achieve a particular developmental ability. For instance, I was part of an IFSP team once where the father’s IFSP outcome for his 10-month old son was to play tee-ball one day. The child had a new diagnosis of cerebral palsy, and quite honestly, we didn’t know when he would be able to run the bases or swing a bat. I participated on another team once where the family adamantly wanted the child to walk independently. The child has multiple, significant developmental delays. In both situations, the professional team members wrestled with what to write on the IFSP. We didn’t want to feel like we were setting the parent up for disappointment by putting something on the IFSP that we didn’t think could happen before the child turned 3 years old, but we also wanted to respect the family’s hopes for their child.
So what did we do? In both cases:
- We talked with the parents about the developmental steps that needed to come before the children would play tee-ball or walk, and we wove those into the outcomes.
- We concluded the outcomes with phrases like “…to prepare Jamie to play tee-ball when he’s older.” or “…to help Brooklyn learn to move on his own.” so that the family knew that we “heard” them and valued what was important to them.
- We tried to balance educating with family about the developmental steps that preceded these major accomplishments while honoring what they wanted for their children.
Expectations are all about working toward a child’s future. Honor a family’s expectations when you can, and educate when the expectations are causing stress, like for Teddy’s family. When you think about it, how do we ever know, as the professional team members, if a child will or won’t meet those expectations eventually? We can’t know, so why not honor the family’s expectations and do what we can during our short time together to work toward outcomes that are important to them?
What do you do when working with a caregiver who has expectations that seem really high for the child?
What strategies do you use to educate while honoring the family’s hopes?