The Nature of Expectations

As we enter the final term of the school year it is not uncommon to see a spike in anxiety in our students, particularly in relation to assessments and exams. As a community we all want the best for our young people however, in this context it is helpful for all of us to be mindful of the nature of the expectations we hold and how we may project these expectations onto our young people, consciously or unconsciously.

"Expectations are mental mindsets we choose to hold (they are not genetically fixed) that help us move through time (from now to later), through change (from old to new), and through experience (from familiar to unfamiliar) in order to anticipate the next reality, we encounter."

As with everything our children do, something is only a problem if it’s causing a problem. Depending upon circumstances, some students will internalize expectations to motivate them to do “their best” whilst others will want to be “the best”, or in other words to be “perfect”. This second contention often referred to as “perfectionism” is unrealistic and can lead to well-being issues including anxiety, depression, and burnout that can impact their confidence and capacity to fully engage in their learning.

What does perfectionism look like?

The behaviours that drive perfectionism might be different depending on the child, but here are some of the common ones:

  • Refusing to try anything new or unfamiliar (to avoid failing or making a mistake).
  • Difficulty completing work or being slow to finish (because of constant checking or repeating to make sure there are no mistakes).
  • Procrastination – because it’s easier sometimes not to start than to face the possibility of failure.
  • More likely to ask for help rather than try it themselves first. Asking for help is a strength, and we don’t want to discourage that, but if the request for help is driven by a fear of getting it wrong, it can be stifling and get in the way of being brave and taking life-giving risks.
  • Giving up or becoming distressed, angry, irritable, or upset if they make a mistake, or if they believe that whatever they are working on might be less than perfect.
  • Tendency to think in all-or-nothing terms – if it isn’t perfect, it’s bad/wrong/stupid.
  • Tendency to be self-critical.

On the flipside

Beneath perfectionist tendencies will be the makings of character strengths such as grit, determination, and courage for that can be channelled into how we respond to what’s important to them (and us) in a manner that reframes the nature of expectation into character strengths that can be nurtured, whilst simultaneously dialing down the behaviours that stifle them. Here is where you come in.

1. Let it be about being brave, rather than being right/ brilliant/ excellent (because brave is all those things). Don’t base their worth on how they perform instead make it about their character strengths that you observe eg. kindness, teamwork, perseverance, courage, hope, humour, creativity, self-regulation and so on.

2. No one is perfect. Hard things take time to learn and to master and even when the skills are there, the polish can take longer. Praise effort outcome. This can help strip away any fear or shame that can come from failing to meet expectations.

3. The most potent way to dissolve shame is to bring the story into the open. Shame thrives on secrecy. Encourage conversation around challenges and imperfections, and hold back from judgment, criticism, or helping them to feel better. Let them sit with how it feels to own their imperfections in a safe, secure, loving environment – without self-blame, without pity, and without being talked out of how they feel. This will help them learn that imperfections don’t change how great they are, how loved they are, and how capable they are.

4. Let their imperfect moments connect with yours. When the people we most adore are struggling, it is understandable that we want to “fix” things. Sometimes the best thing we can do is keep our own anxiety and discomfort in check for long enough so they can find their own way forward. This may or may not include their need for us to help, but always can always be with our support and encouragement.

5. When young people have a fixed mindset of how things “should” be in terms of expectations, things can begin to unravel. The antidote is to encourage self-compassion and this requires courage. Responding to unmet expectations with self-compassion turns down the volume on perfectionism and anxiety, theirs and our own.

6. Learning how to respond to the highs and lows life presents opportunities to foster resilience.

7. Getting things done is better than getting things perfect. Encourage them not to put things off; once it’s done, it's done.

And finally …

As parents and educators, it’s important that we keep our own expectations in check. Young people will always learn more from what we do rather than what we say. When we, as the trusted adults in young people's lives, show them that we lovingly accept the ebbs and flows that will come with life’s journey, we give them the power to do the same. This freedom and safety to be where they are and not where we expect them to be, exploring their place in the world, learning from their mistakes, and being curious to explore their own interests and passions will enhance their capacity to flourish and thrive in an ever-changing world.

In kindness & optimism,

Director of Counselling

Acknowledgements & further reading/ resources