Setting Realistic Expectations for Your Child

By Lavinia Ball-Marian, MA, LPC

In my work with children and their parents, I frequently learn that the parent’s expectations of their children are unrealistic. And not having their expectations met brings parents a lot of disappointment, which translates into consequences for children, turmoil, and breaks in the child/parent relationship.

To help you navigate this tricky terrain, I would like to share some thoughts about how to set realistic expectations for your child.

I grew up in Romania. As a child, I had to wait in line many hours for different products that we needed at home: eggs, sugar, flour,

Photo by Christian Ref,

Photo by Christian Ref,

bread, oranges, and many, many others. One year I had to wait in line for five hours to get four oranges – one per family member – and I remember eating my orange until nothing was left of it. Now I am a mom and one day my daughter complained that she did not want oranges in her lunch box. That triggered something in me and my immediate expectation was that she would not complain because it did not make sense for her to complain – she had the orange and she did not have to wait for in a long line in below-zero temperatures. Obviously, when she complained I started telling her the story of my orange experience and told her how fussy she was and how she needed to be more appreciative

My expectation of what was supposed to happen instigated a fight with my daughter. She did not have the experience I had and it was hard for her to relate to my story or to me when I was a little girl. I failed at being a good parent in that moment. I’ve since realized that my expectation was ridiculous and that because of that, we fought and I said things that did not mean much to her.

The lesson I learned from this event was to be mindful when I approach a situation with certain expectations and to be ready to adjust it to suit the situation. Or better yet, not have too high or unrealistic expectations in the first place.

Here are some expectations that tend to be unrealistic:

  • Photo by Clare Bloomfield,

    Photo by Clare Bloomfield,

    Others will treat you the same way you treat them.

  • Your spouse will guess what’s on your mind.
  • Your child will always behave and always be in a great mood.
  • Your child will not get dirty.
  • Your child will have great manners and will be grateful for what he or she has that you didn’t have.
  • Your child will do homework or clean his or her room without being asked.

To set realistic expectations, they need to be:

  • Appropriate for your child’s emotional and cognitive level
  • Tailored to your child’s strengths and weaknesses (for example, you can’t expect a two-year-old to clean her room by herself)
  • Clear and consistent
  • Communicated simply and directly
  • Based on your child’s preferences and abilities and not on your preferences and abilities
  • Focused on your child’s development and not in comparison to others.

Being clear and consistent in your expectations sets the tone for predictability and eliminates the risk of confusion and frustration. Expectations can’t be set based on yourself: if you like broccoli, your child does not automatically have to like it, too.

It is important to look at your child as a unique individual. Sometimes I tend to compare my daughter’s results or actions with other kids’, forgetting that she is different than they are and has different talents, interests, and skills.

Because your child is different than others, it is important for you to acknowledge his successes even if they are small. My daughter is in a play and even if she is not playing the main role we have to tell her that even playing that small role contributes to the overall success of the play and that is important.

Photo by Hans Thoursie,

Photo by Hans Thoursie,

Set expectations that encourage self worth and confidence. Try your best to set balanced expectations – not too high to help your child be successful and not fail, and not too low to erode self-esteem and confidence.

And remember that, whenever you set expectations, do it in a manner that keeps your child’s spirit intact. Regardless of whether you want him to excel in school, have great manners, clean his room, or follow routines, remember that each child is different and your role is to guide yours through life by encouraging him, letting him fail, and helping him get back up.

When our expectations are realistic and based on our child’s abilities, our child is likely to succeed and we will avoid frustration, anger, and feeling like failures as parents. We will also avoid viewing our child as a failure, something that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Lavinia Ball-Marian, MA, LPC

Photo by Cristin Spielman Photography, LLC


Lavinia Ball-Marian is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in children and families.  You can reach her at or 720-432-7475.