“Many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents’ expectations. This feeling is stronger than any intellectual insight they might have, that it is not a child’s task or duty to satisfy his parents’ needs. No argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life’s earliest periods, and from that they derive their intensity and obduracy.” ― Alice Miller
Why children have to meet expectations
Most children, if not all, are held up to their parents’ and other authority figures’ expectations and standards. This is mainly by nature of being helpless and dependent, therefore relying on a caregiver no matter how they treat you.
Since a child needs their caregivers to survive, they have no choice but to comply to whatever these expectations and standards are. Moreover, since a child is new to the world, they have no point of reference of what healthy and unhealthy looks like. Therefore, they tend to think that whatever they are going through is normal. How would they know otherwise? This is called normalization, i.e. rationalizing abnormal, harmful, toxic, and abusive treatment as normal.
This is exacerbated because they are often forbidden to feel and express their true emotions, thoughts, needs, preferences, and grievances, all of which is an unhealthy expectation by itself.
And so a child accepts whatever role their caregivers attribute to them. Some of those roles are pushed on them by family members, by school, by church, by their community, by peers, and by society as a whole. But mostly by their parents because parents have the most power and influence over a child’s development.
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 actively or passively pushed to meet.
Roles and expectations for children: a few examples
There are so many standards, expectations, and roles that children are forced into that I could write a whole book just about that. Here, however, let’s look at a few common examples.
“I wanted a boy/girl.”
Many parents have a specific preference for their child’s gender. A lot of them even tell that to the child explicitly. “I always wanted a boy [said to a girl],” or, “I wish you were a girl,” or, “Why were you not born a boy…?”
This makes the child feel unwanted, defective, inherently bad, unlovable, or a disappointment. On top of that, this is also something that the child has no influence over. The best they can do is to try to be more like whatever their caregiver wants them to be: more “girly,” more “manly,” more handy, “nicer,” more beautiful, more aggressive, and so on. If they better reflect the preferred gender image in their caregiver’s mind, then they can hope to be at least marginally accepted and loved.
“I always wanted my child to be like me.”
Here the caregiver tries to mold their child into them. They want for the child to have the same interests, the same hobbies, the same mannerisms, the same beliefs, even the same looks. Basically they want their child to be a tinier version or an extension of themselves.
“I want my child to become X.”
This is an extension of the previous point but related to a specific broader role, like a career. Often a child is pushed into following the path of their parent. For instance, a parent who is a doctor expects their child to become a doctor too, and feels disappointed or even angry if the child doesn’t want to pursue it.
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 merely exposed to it from an early age, oftentimes the child is forced or manipulated into it, which makes the process unnatural.
Various psychological roles
Here, the child is attributed a certain psychological role: a caretaker of their parents or other family members, a scapegoat, a golden child, a surrogate spouse, a constant failure, a rescuer, and many others. These are pretty self-explanatory and many of us have had to live some version of them to one degree or another.
Once a role is set, the child usually internalizes it and it becomes a part of their personality, and consequently it is carried into their adulthood.
Negative effects of not meeting the expectations
Again, since a child’s survival depends on their caregiver, the child has no other choice but to undertake whatever role or standard they are expected to meet in order to be accepted and loved, at least conditionally. Attempts to resist are usually recognized as disobedience, as “being bad,” and the child gets punished: actively (beatings, yelling) or passively (silent treatment, rejection).
The child often grows up thinking that they are indeed 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 since they have been conditioned not to be themselves and be whatever they are expected to be. In other words, they are conditioned to self-erase.
Early roles and expectations set by our caregivers are very difficult to let go of and may take months or years of therapy and self-work to identify and escape from.
What roles and standards were you expected to meet when growing up? Do you still try to do that as an adult? Share your thoughts in the comments below or write about it in your journal.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.