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Unrealistic Adult Expectations

In our work with behaviorally difficult kids and their caregivers (parents, teachers, milieu staff in hospital or other treatment settings), we are typically helping folks appreciate the role of kids’ lagging thinking skills and how they are implicated in challenging behavior.  An unmet adult expectation is often unmet because the child doesn’t have the skills to meet that expectation, to comply, etc.

One domain of lagging skill that comes up over and over again in most cases is that of executive functioning.  More and more making its way into the popular culture, it’s an umbrella term that refers to a whole host of skills from planning/organizing, time sense/management, working memory, the regulation of attention, impulse control, and other more specific skills.  Of course, one interesting thing here is that it’s now rather well known—and itself gradually becoming a commonplace notion—that the part of the brain responsible for such functioning isn’t done developing, by some estimates, into young adulthood, around about 24 years old!  And we don’t expect very young children to have good executive functioning; rather, we realize we have to do much of the executive thinking for them.

What has struck us of late is the fact that sometimes, when adults are clashing with kids over some particular unmet expectation or unsolved problem, the issue isn’t that the child is showing notably lagging executive skills, but that adults may be asking for a degree of functioning that the child simply can’t be expected to show.  This gets a bit into the world of cultural commentary here, but we live in a busy society, families work hard, there’s a lot to get done, and, to use a personal example from one of our own homefronts, maybe there’s nothing developmentally troublesome about a kid dawdling in the bathtub, and having trouble shifting gears to get onto the rest of the busy nighttime routine.  Maybe it’s not a completely fair expectation that a child move that fast, and it’s not their problem that mom or dad has a night of work still ahead, or the night is very short due to work schedules, or what have you.  It’s not always practical, of course, but maybe sometimes what’s most in point, aside from remediating lagging skills in a child, is recalibrating our own expectations and assessing how realistic our own demands are.

Fortunately, Plan B can still play a helpful role here.  But occasionally it’s useful to step back and ask oneself, “Are my expectations realistic here?”