‘If your expectations are unrealistically high, then you are setting yourself and your teen up for situations where they will feel like they are disappointing you and themselves,” says Brad Sachs, a family psychologist who specializes in clinical work with children, adolescents, couples and families, in Columbia, Maryland. Sachs, the author of a number of books, speaks on “The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied” on Wednesday, February 28, at Princeton Day School. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, is aimed at parents of children ages pre-K through 12th grade.
Sachs’s books, which examine the sources and the impact of unrealistic expectations placed on today’s children, include “The Good Enough Teen: How to Raise Adolescents with Love and Acceptance (Despite How Impossible They Can Be) and “The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied” (HarperCollins, 2001), which was named as an Editor’s Choice by Amazon.com and became its best-selling parenting title that year.
At the center of a society today where the bar is constantly set higher and higher in the workplace and in school as well as the head-spinning developments in technology, teens can feel particularly daunted, says Sachs, as they dealing with another set of overwhelming factors at the very same time — adolescence and the traditional pains and challenges that are attached to that stage of life.
In the worst case scenarios, when unrealistic expectations are set by either the parent or the teen and then not met, the results can be very damaging to a teenager’s tender sense of self-esteem. They can also be harmful and counterproductive to family relationships that are evolving at the same time and can therefore be fragile and tentative.
According to Sachs, a healthy family dynamic is based on communication, which is why it is important to have two-way conversations with your children — especially teenagers during those tough transitional years — about expectations on both sides. “Your teen has his own set of expectations that may be different from yours so you have to talk about it,” Sachs says. “You can tell him, ‘These are our expectations.’ Ask what are some of your thoughts about your own expectations and how can we reconcile both sets of expectations with the end result that everyone is satisfied?”
He also points out that the parent-teenager relationship has another built-in challenge that many are not even aware of: at the same time the teenager is undergoing seismic changes in his life, so too, may be the parent, whether it is in the form of a mid-life crisis or menopause or something else. “We are turning to our adolescents to carry the burden of our own deferred wishes and promises to ourselves that we have broken,” says Sachs. “And most times we are not even aware that we are doing that, even if those desires are built into the expectations we have set up for our children. Sometimes just being aware that we have these unconscious expectations that we may bring to the table will help take the edge off unrealistic expectations and on the parent-teen relationship as well.”
Why are teenagers the way they are — sometimes moody and difficult, often on a pendulum swing of emotion, at times apparently determined to promote conflict and upset the balance of forces within the family? Sachs says that the teenage years are, in a sense, a time of mourning because teenagers are grieving for the end of childhood. “This is an idea that mostly has been ignored,” he says, “but it can help you understand a lot about why teenagers behave the way they do. A lot of the self-destructive behavior that is often attributed to hormones is not always the case. Sometimes it is the way teenagers find to make sense of their grief and to manage it. If we can understand what they are suffering and help them know that we understand that, it opens up a whole range of possibilities in the parent-child relationship. If we simply write everything off, we miss the drama of this journey.”
His newest book, “When No One Understands: Letters to a Teenager on Life, Loss, and the Hard Road to Adulthood,” is based on Sachs’s correspondence with one of his patients, a teenager named Amanda who is recovering from a suicide attempt. While Amanda struggles with issues that are more difficult than most, she is, in a sense, the archetype of today’s teenager. “With Amanda I was looking for the right vehicle to convey the thoughts and ideas that apply to teenagers themselves as they struggle to understand what is bewildering and disappointing about being an adolescent. Amanda was struggling more than most teenagers but the elemental aspects of transitioning from childhood to adulthood are universal. There are elements that every young adult needs to encounter and deal with in his journey to understand what is happening to him — why he or she feels the things they do, how to manage their feelings, how to find a broader way to look at them and to understand these other forces that are working on them,” Sachs says.
Sachs acknowledges that the forces that are operating on both generations today are severe and profound. “It’s not a simple matter,” he says. “There are the economic realities. There is a growing gap between the rich and the poor and parents get anxious about what is best for their child, which is one reason why we are producing a hyper-achieving generation. But we have to find a way to take the edge off and file away some of the intensity and drudgery. The conversation has to start with the parent and child. Harness outside forces as well. The more you are aware of the problem, the more you talk about it and make it more of a community and school-wide conversation, the easier it is to ratchet down the intensity.”
Sachs was born and raised in Philadelphia. His father is in the sportswear business and his mother is a teacher and librarian. He grew up with two brothers and as he says, “my entire adolescent experience and that of both my brothers helped to heighten my sensitivity to the light of any teenager struggling valiantly to make the perilous, sometimes harrowing journey from childhood into young adulthood.” He is a graduate of Brown University, where he met his wife, Karen Meckler, a psychiatrist and medical acupuncturist. They have three teenagers and two dogs and live in Columbia, Maryland. Sachs is also the founder and director of the Father Center, a program designed to meet the needs of new, expectant, and experienced fathers.
No matter what age your children may be, Sachs says every family has some of the same questions: How can you avoid common sources of conflict in family relationships? Are you trapped by an unrealistic pursuit of perfection? How can you fill your family with a spirit of cooperation and compassion? He offers these tips for all “Good Enough” parents:
Learn to distinguish what you want from your child from what they want by examining the origin of the expectations that you bring to parenthood.
Allow yourself to grow and evolve along with your children.
Understand that not every childrearing problem has an ideal solution.
Know that expecting family life to be easy always creates great difficulties.
Accept the fact that overly-strenuous efforts to avoid family conflict actually lay the groundwork for the most damaging conflicts.
Trust that children will grow and change for the better only if they know that they will be loved and accepted for staying the same.
Become aware that what we identify as a teenager’s problem is usually his/her attempt to solve a problem.
Emphasize that it’s not what you do and what you have, but who you are and how you love that ultimately makes for a meaningful, satisfying life.
As with any other significant topic you broach with your children, Sachs says that the earlier you start addressing the issues and talking about them, the more natural and spontaneous your conversations will be. “But even if you have never talked about these issues, don’t think it is ever too late to start. You can say we need to take a look at these expectations. I want to do this as a parent. Ultimately we’re trying to help our children find the key to a satisfying life. The more we empower kids to do that, the better we can help them find their own way to happiness.”
Brad Sachs, Wednesday, February 28, 7:30 p.m. Princeton Day School. The author speaks on “The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied.” Free. 609-924-6700.
Sponsored by CommonGround, a collaborative effort of the Parent Associations of 12 Princeton area independent schools. Each year CommonGround invites distinguished speakers who address contemporary educational and parenting issues.