What Do Expectations Mean to Adult Children?


While expectations, which can be equated to needed, hoped for, anticipated, or even pre-believed outcomes, are integral to everyone’s lives, those of adult children may hinge upon their very development as people.

Closer to unquestioned truths, these expectations begin in infancy and entail the basic caring, nurturing, and loving needs of sustenance, clothing, and protection. Viewing their parents as never betraying or harming, God-equivalent representatives, they are forced to place their lives and trust in them, since they are totally dependent upon them at this stage. Yet those who are in the hands of alcoholic, para-alcoholic, or dysfunctional caregivers, who themselves never resolved their upbringings, quickly learn the fallacy of their expectations.

“Turning to an alcoholic for affection and support can be like going to the hardware store for bread,” advises Al-Anon’s “Courage to Change” text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992, p. 2). “Perhaps we expect a good parent to nurture and support our feelings or a loving spouse to comfort and hold us when we are afraid or a caring child to want to pitch in when we are ill or overwhelmed. While these loved ones may not meet our expectations, it is our expectations (themselves), not our loved ones, that have let us down.”

Recently created by God, however, a young child expects the same unconditional love, seeing his parents in the equivalent light. If there is neglect, abandonment, or even worse, abuse, he is only likely to justify it as appropriate “discipline” for his own wrongs, flaws, or general unloveability and not because of my lack on their part-in other words, it is he and not them.

Because these expectations are more akin to fundamental needs at an early age, he may erroneously believe that it is somehow his responsibility to reach, influence, right, or repair his parents, shifting the burden from perpetrator to victim. And doing so may be the equivalent of penetrating a steel wall of denial with a plastic knife. Resultantly, any expectations of them prove futile, since alcoholism is a disease not influenced by means such as reason or logic.

Forced to function in a fight-or-flight survival mode, especially in the midst of an unpredictable, chaotic, and dangerous home environment, the person seeks internal safety by creating the cocooned inner child, but fails to develop into a secure, fully functioning adult. Left with the hole in his soul and very low self-esteem, he may expect little from himself, but a great deal from others later in life, especially since he views them through a distorted lens that deludes him into believing that they are somehow so much more than he in terms of value, stature, and importance.

But his illusion may soon be shattered in a fallen world. And while he may perceive them as superior, they are in their own imperfect, impermanent states.

Some of an adult child’s unmet expectations may result from the never-considered, but anticipated mind-reading ability of others. He cannot automatically expect them to know what his needs or wants are without verbalizing or demonstrating them, and it is unrealistic to expect any single person to meet all of them. As human beings with their own distractions, distortions, and deficiencies, they cannot be expected to focus on the needs of a single other.

“Before coming to Al-Anon, I spent most of my life having expectations of, and making unrealistic demands on, everyone around me,” according to a testimonial in “Hope for Today” (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 180). “Anyone who didn’t follow through on those demands invited my wrath. However, of all those I placed under my jurisdiction, the person I was hardest on was myself.”

Perfectionism, one of the very adult child behavioral characteristics, is an attempt to fill the childhood-bored hole in the soul and compensate for the lack of parental attention, validation, praise, and love. A single error, such as the misspell of a word, for instance, may cause the person to rekindle his deeply ingrained belief of inferiority and inadequacy and blind him to his assuredly numerous strengths and positive qualities. There may be even a deeper reason, however.

“Perfectionism and forms of perfectionism exist in all types of alcoholic and dysfunctional homes,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 36). “There is a difference between parents challenging their children to reach higher and to improve, and the damaging perfectionism in which the bar keeps being raised beyond reason. (It) is a response to a shame-based and controlling home. The child mistakenly believes that she can avoid being shamed if she is perfect in her thinking and acting.”

Because home environments are considered early representations of what will occur in the world at large, adult children carry their traits and beliefs into it.

“I grew up with problem-drinking,” “Hope for Today” continues (op. cit., p. 22). “I carried the notion into adulthood that I must be perfect and that I was responsible for everyone. Of course, I never achieved this goal, which left me feeling less-than, not smart enough, not attractive enough, simply not good enough. To cope with my failure to achieve perfection, I focused on the character defects of those around me. My need to be perfect fed into my preoccupation with others.”

While professors, colleagues, and even acquaintances may view rule-adhering actions and achievements in a positive light, the person delivering them may be more of the human-doing versus human-being type and rigidly unreachable. His expectations that others will automatically like or even admire him may be unrealistic, predetermining his failure and enabling him to transfer blame from him to them because of it. Instead of perceiving how others should feel about him, he must amend his own attitudes toward them.

Despite the inherent help of twelve-step venues, they may carry their expectations into them.

“If I become impatient with myself, I can examine my expectations,” “Courage to Change” concludes (op. cit., p. 19). “Perhaps I expect recovery to happen overnight. I will take time today to acknowledge my efforts and to trust the process of the Al-Anon program.”

Expectations-or the playing in a person’s mind of outcomes that will not necessarily occur-can be investments in disappointments, frustration, and anger if they do not, and the strategy shifts the burden and blame from the faulty thinking process to the failure of others to meet the preconceived results. The higher the expectations, the greater will be the disappointment. Echoing what may be the subconscious attempt to influence or fix displaced parental representatives later in life, the methodology is just as unrealistic and ill-conceived. Yet the more whole a person becomes, the less likely will be his need to employ it.

Article Sources:

“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, 2006.

“Courage to Change.” Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992.

“Hope for Today.” Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002.

Source by Robert Waldvogel

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