KIDS
December 21, 2009

Expectations Can Hurt Teens

Parents' expectations of adolescent rebelliousness or risky behavior can help create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What makes some teens "easy" and some "impossible?" How do the expectations that preteens and their parents have of their future adolescent behavior influence the outcome? A study published in the June issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence examined these questions. The investigators surveyed over 200 sixth−graders and their mothers about their expectations for risk−taking, rebelliousness and alienation in adolescence. A year later, they asked the parents and teens to report on their actual behaviors and feelings. They compared the actual adolescent behavior to the expectations that the teens had expressed for themselves and that their mothers had predicted for them to see whether early expectations had indeed influenced later behavior.

When bad behavior is expected, parents and teens may over-focus on poor behaviors while being less attentive to good behaviors. This bias reinforces the negative view of the teen.

Previous studies have reported on the question of whether expectations influence outcome, in a form of the idea of creating a self−fulfilling prophecy. One showed that mothers' and children's expectations for the math achievement of the students, which were strongly influenced by the gender of the student, predicted their performance better than their grades and standardized test scores. Other studies have reported on the predictive value of parental and adolescent expectations on teen use of alcohol and drugs. But how do expectations influence future behavior? There are many ways. When bad behavior is expected, parents and teens may focus too much on poor behaviors and too little on good behaviors. This bias reinforces the negative view of the teen.

Expectations of bad behavior may change the way that parents interact with their teens. They may project more tension, anger, or frustration that may lead to poorer quality interactions between teens and parents. Parents who expect bad behavior may decrease their attention to their child and cease monitoring them because they don't expect to be able to positively influence their teens. In addition, the negative expectations of parents may influence the teens' opinions of themselves. Adolescents who have lower expectations for their own future behavior may be less resistant to risk−taking and experimentation. They may be less likely to strive to maintain close relationships with their parents and more comfortable with a growing sense of alienation from their families.

The researchers, Christy M. Buchanan of Wake Forest University and Johna L. Hughes of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, predicted that when mothers and adolescents had negative expectations for future behavior during adolescence, the adolescent behavior one year later would indeed be characterized by more rebelliousness, risk−taking, and alienation. They expected this would be true even when established predictors of adolescent behavior were taken into account. The interviewed participants and collected information from questionnaires when the students were in sixth grade and a year later when they were in seventh. They assessed risk taking/rebelliousness, susceptibility to peer influence, quality of the parent−adolescent relationship, and degree of parental control. They found that when mothers expected their teens to engage in stereotypical risk−taking, rebellious and alienated behaviors, their child's later adolescent behavior indeed showed these qualities.

Expectations operate on a two−way street. Adolescents who had expected such behaviors of themselves in sixth grade, reported higher levels of breaking rules, disobeying parents and other risky behaviors than would have been predicted by other information about the teens. When mothers of sixth−graders predicted higher levels of poor behavior for their future adolescents, a year later, their seventh−graders showed worse behaviors than would be otherwise expected. Sixth−graders, who expected to be alienated as teens, were indeed more distanced from their families or were experiencing more conflict with their parents, a year later. Researchers admitted that this report of alienation could reflect the teens' perceptions, rather than the true nature of the relationship, but since teens operate on their perceptions, their interactions with their parents would be based on their sense of alienation, whether true or not. They further point out that when teenagers feel alienated from their families, they are at greater risk for sadness and depression.

The researchers concluded that in the very early years of adolescence, automatic expectations of the types of defiance, risk −taking, and alienation from family that have become stereotypically associated with teenagers can in fact foster these behaviors. Whether by altering their perceptions or by creating self−fulfilling prophesies, both parents and young teens can actually encourage the development and perpetuation of unfavorable behavior patterns by lowering their expectations of themselves and their children. Parents may benefit from examining their own assumptions about their children, and challenging the assumptions that their young teens express about their future selves. Parents may wish to discuss such issues with their children's doctors. Families who concerned that they may be encouraging the development of negative behaviors may benefit from talking together with their doctors or with therapists.

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