Knowing When Your Expectations of Your Child Aren’t Realistic

Sometimes for parents, and even therapists, it’s difficult to know when our expectations for a certain child are unreasonable. Complicating this is the reality that every child develops according to their own unique time table.

So how do we know if our expectations are unrealistic?

We sat down for a conversation with Jamie Waldvogel, BCBA, and founder of Minneapolis-area based ABA practice Behave Your Best, to pick her brain for answers to this question.

As Jamie explained, “The conservative way to approach the situation is to assume that if the child is showing unwanted behavior, our expectation is probably too big right now.”

That’s right… Current, recurring unwanted behavior usually means a child lacks the skills or motivation to meet our expectations.

That doesn’t mean your child will never be able to achieve the change you hope to see. For right now, however, they need help working through some additional steps in order to get there.

So what’s a parent to do?

Recognizing Skill Limitations Versus Stubbornness

If we ask a child to perform long division and they can’t figure it out, we don’t get mad and punish them. Instead, we assume they simply lack the necessary skills in that area. In the same way, it isn’t reasonable to punish or scold a child who fails to “eat politely” or “ask kindly” just because they haven’t mastered these skills yet.

Jamie says that toilet training offers a great example of where things can go awry:

Mom starts teaching Ava to use the potty chair … Ava has some success with this new skill … Mom backs off on reminding Ava to use the potty chair … Ava starts having accidents … Mom gets frustrated, because it appears that Ava knows what to do, but just won’t do it, so she thinks the child is being obstinate or engaging in a power struggle.

What went wrong?

After a few successes, Mom started expecting Ava to initiate using the toilet on her own. If Ava knows what to do so when Mom provides cues, then she should know what to do on her own, right?.

Some kids will make the leap from parent-initiated toilet use to self-initiated use, but the reality is that many won’t. In these cases they need continued practice with appropriate toilet training methods as well as help learning to recognize when they need to use the toilet so they can go and ask Mom or Dad for help.

If you’re feeling stuck, fear not– all is not lost.  Jamie says that ABA’s see toilet training issues fairly often, so even if it seems like you’ve tried everything, consulting with a professional may turn up some new ideas…or help you know whether or not your child simply needs a bit more time working on their skills.

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Understanding What Motivates Your Child

So maybe Mom and Ava worked with their local BCBA and broke down the skills she was still missing. Now she knows how to use the toilet when needed, but she just isn’t doing so consistently. What’s missing?

Think about it from Ava’s perspective:

  • Ava is playing with her favorite set of legos.
  • Ava feels the need to urinate.
  • Ava realizes that in order to urinate, she needs to leave her legos.
  • If Ava urinates in her pants, right there, she can keep playing with her legos—Mom might not even realize there is a problem until Ava finishes the castle she is building.
  • Ava decides it is preferable to stay where she is and urinate.

The motivation to keep building her castle is stronger than the motivation to avoid wetting herself, so Ava stays where she is.

This means that Mom needs to find some positive reinforcers to help increase Ava’s motivation to use the toilet. A common one is offering a small piece of candy or preferred food item every time Ava successfully uses the toilet. This reinforcer will slowly be phased out as Ava begins using the toilet consistently.

Recognizing That Children Often Develop Skills at a Different Pace

We all know that every child is unique, but sometimes we unconsciously place expectations on our children based on the timetable their siblings or a friend’s child followed.

Jamie says that regardless of whether your child is typically developing or working through a developmental disorder, recognizing their individuality is essential.

She shares the example of a family who discovered this with their own two children.

In order to have a good day, the oldest child needed advance prompts of anything that would be happening… or anything he’d be expected to do. So the parents would say, “First we’re going to do this, and then this, etc.”.

Their second child, however, responded completely differently to these prompts. Hearing the prompts aroused anxiety, which fed problem behaviors.

“So what works really well for their firstborn,” says Jamie, “causes the unwanted behavior in their second born.”

So maybe your firstborn—or your friend’s child, or all of the other kids in your therapy practice—learned to fall asleep without help or to navigate transitions at school with no real drama. That’s great! But realistically, some kids will face more challenges and if we base our expectations on comparisons we will only become frustrated, and by projecting that frustration, cause the child to experience anxiety.

True progress happens when we recognize the limitations of a child’s current skills, take an honest look at what motivates their behaviors, and ultimately, adjust our expectations to the individual.

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