Many people suffer their entire lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt; they suffer the feeling of not having lived up to the expectations that their parents imposed on them. This feeling is stronger than any intellectual vision you may have, that it is not a child’s task or duty to satisfy the needs of his parents. No argument can overcome these feelings of guilt, since they have their beginnings in the first periods of life, and from there derive their intensity and obstinacy.

Why do children have to meet parental expectations?

Most, if not all, children are held to the expectations and standards of their parents and other authority figures. This is mainly due to the nature of being helpless and dependent, therefore they trust a caregiver no matter how they treat them.

Since a child needs their caregivers to survive, they have no choice but to meet any of these expectations and standards . Also, since a child is new to the world, they have no benchmark of what looks healthy and unhealthy. Therefore, they tend to think that everything they are going through is normal. How would they know otherwise? This is called normalization, that is, rationalizing abnormal, harmful, toxic, and abusive treatment as normal.

This is compounded because they are often prohibited from feeling and expressing their true emotions, thoughts, needs, preferences, and complaints, all of which are an unhealthy expectation in and of itself.

And so a child accepts whatever role their caregivers attribute to them. Some of those roles are played by members of the family, school, church, community, peers, and society at large. But mainly by their parents because parents have the greatest power and influence over the development of a child.

Since we live in a highly traumatized and traumatizing world, many children grow up negatively affected by the standards, roles, and expectations that they are prompted to fulfill either actively or passively.

Roles and expectations for children: some examples

There are so many standards, expectations, and roles that children are forced into that we wouldn’t finish naming them. Here, however, let’s look at some common examples.

“I wanted a boy / girl”

Many parents have a specific preference for the gender of their children. Many of them even say that to the child explicitly. “I always wanted a boy” (he says it to a girl) or “I wish you were a girl” or “Why weren’t you born a boy …?”

This makes the child feel unwanted, flawed, inherently bad, unpleasant, or a disappointment. Besides that, this is also something that the child has no influence on. The best thing you can do is try to be more like what your caregiver wants you to be: more “feminine”, more “masculine”, more practical, “nicer”, more beautiful, more aggressive, and so on. If they better reflect the preferred gender image in the mind of their caregiver, then they can expect to be at least marginally accepted and loved.

“I always wanted my son to be like me”

Here the caregiver tries to mold his / her child into him / her. They want the child to have the same interests, the same hobbies, the same manners, the same beliefs, even the same appearances. They basically want their child to be a smaller version or an extension of themselves.

“I want my son to become X”

This is an extension of the previous point but related to a specific broader role, such as a career. A child is often pushed to follow the path of his parents. For example, a parent who is a doctor hopes that his child will also become a doctor, and is disappointed or even angry if the child does not want to follow him.

This is one of the reasons why so many children continue “the family tradition” of following a certain profession. While sometimes the child is naturally interested in the field or discipline because they are exposed to it from an early age, many times the child is forced or manipulated into it, making the process unnatural.

Various psychological roles

Here, the child is attributed a certain psychological role: a caretaker of his parents or other family members, a scapegoat, a golden child, a substitute spouse, a constant failure, a rescuer, and many others. These are pretty self explanatory and many of us have had to live a version of them to one degree or another.

Once a role is established, it is generally internalized by the child and it becomes part of his personality, and consequently carried into adulthood.

Negative effects of not meeting caregiver expectations

Again, since a child’s survival depends on their caregiver, the child has no choice but to assume whatever role or norm they are expected to fulfill in order to be accepted and loved, at least conditionally. Attempts to resist are generally recognized as disobedience, such as “being mean” and the child is punished: actively (hitting, yelling) or passively (silent treatment, rejection or recriminations for not meeting expectations of their caregiver).

The child often grows up thinking that he really is a failure, a disappointment, a bad person. Such a person often struggles with toxic guilt and shame. They are also confused about who they really are, as they have been conditioned not to be themselves and to be what they are expected to be. In other words, they are conditioned to nullify themselves.

The early roles and expectations set by our caregivers are very difficult to forget and can take months or years of therapy and self-employment to identify and escape from them.

What roles and standards did you hope to fulfill as you grew up? Are you still trying to do that as an adult?

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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