Setting Expectations for our Kids even When they’re Hurting

Sad Child and Mom

Ask Amy: When We Hurt for Our Kids


by Amy Egan

It may be impossible not to hurt when our kids are hurting, but maybe just being aware when we experience it would be helpful.  There is almost nothing more painful than watching our kids hurt: most of the time we’d rather do their suffering for them.  I am sure it is the “Mama Bear instinct” that takes hold of us when we see our kids in any kind of pain – whether it is physical or emotional, and whether they are the cause of their pain or not at fault.

There are situations when their pain needs to be our business – and there are also plenty of situations where their concerns need to be their own.  The focus of this article is not about whether to step in: it is about bringing to light the serious ramifications we can create simply by approaching the child’s concerns with our own perspectives.

Sometimes when our kids are in pain, we feel sorry for them; we downright pity them: learning disabilities, physical challenges and depression/anxiety are all cases where sympathy can turn to pity.  Sometimes when our kids feel pain we feel guilt: a bad marriage, a move or financial difficulties may all engender guilt feelings. Any feeling we experience in any of these situations is normal, and up to a point healthy.  I am not suggesting that you suppress your emotions; rather I am suggesting you pay close attention to the way your emotions drive your dealings with your child (or children).

A pitfall many parents fall into, me included, is not to hold our kids accountable out of feelings of sympathy or guilt.  I have had numerous coaching clients say things like, “I don’t want to point out consequences: he is struggling so much already” – or “I won’t hold her accountable because I don’t think she could handle that right now.”

When our kids have strikes against them, we tend to want to make the rest of their life as easy as we can – yet nothing could be more off-base than this philosophy. By not having high enough expectations of them because of their struggles, we label them as victims.  Once they realize that we view them as victims, they see themselves in that way – if they haven’t done so already.  By thinking of them as victims, we type-cast them into “not capable” or “can’t handle it” roles. Life is tough enough without being forced to endure our parents’ pity and victim perspectives!

Instead of crippling our kids by saddling them with “poor you” self-images, I am suggesting that we have lots of empathy for them and for their plights and at the same time maintain high expectations of them. I realize this can be emotionally difficult to do – but it is easy if we keep reminding ourselves of the long-term benefits of high expectations. It may be even more helpful to think of the long-term damage that will result from your pity.  I like to remember Helen Keller as a fantastic example of this. She was a very bright little girl that became blind and deaf after a serious illness and high fever. Her parents were naturally broken-hearted: they felt extremely sorry for Helen and did not have any expectations of her or ever hold her accountable. She became nearly impossible to live with and acted like a wild animal.  Finally and thankfully Annie, her teacher and miracle worker, came into their lives. Annie did not allow Helen to get away with her bad behavior and pushed her to learn.  Look what became of Helen all because someone expected a lot from her!

Periodically we see stories in the news of people who overcome great childhood hardships.  They always seem to say the same thing: “My parents never acted like they felt sorry for me and always had high expectations of me.”

No matter what the issues are, we must always do our best to help our kids over their humps. Whether they need special programs, tutoring, therapy, doctors or just our listening ears, they will always desperately  need us to see them as whole and capable human beings. Only when they know that we view them as able are they able to view themselves in the same way – and only when they view themselves as capable are they able to push through the tough times, become accomplished and achieve high self-esteem. Only then can they go on to fulfill their true purpose and potential.

In the end, it’s all about them having as happy and productive lives as possible. It may not be second nature to hold them accountable when they are down, but it will likely serve them incredibly well in the long run.


Amy Egan - Ask Amy Column - North Texas KidsAmy Egan is a Parenting Consultant and trained Love and Logic Parenting course facilitator. She and her husband are parents to their teenage son and 11 year old daughter. They live in Allen, TX. If you have a question about teens or tweens for Amy, please email her at

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