Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
December 31, 2022

Dealing With Family Expectations in Adulthood: 5 Ways to Cope

There are many outside voices that have helped shape your experiences your whole life. Outside factors like peers, teachers, the media, and cultural norms all impact your internal experiences. But of all these factors, family expectations can be one of the biggest influences in your life. 

Many of my clients struggle with anxiety about living up to their family’s expectations. It’s natural to care about what your family thinks of you. It makes sense that you want their approval. But it can be tricky balancing parents’ expectations of you with your own desires and values. Parents’ expectations can feel smothering, stifling, and intense. So what do family expectations look like in adulthood, and how can you deal with them in a healthy way? Let’s take a look.

parents' expectations

What Parents’ Expectations Look Like

Parental expectations can be extremely frustrating to deal with. Not to mention, they can lead to mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and anger issues. 

Here are some ways unhealthy parental expectations can show up in adulthood:

  • There are specific standards for you to meet, such as becoming a doctor or marrying a certain type of person. These career or life choices are set for you ahead of time. They’re what your family has decided is best, and you’re expected to follow them. Your own dreams are dismissed or mocked. 
  • Your choices are questioned. Maybe your parents don’t approve of your relationship. They may not think this person is the right match for you. Or they may ask when you’re going to finally settle down, get married, and have kids. If your choices clash with theirs, they act like you’re doing something wrong. 
  • Your family criticizes or judges you regularly. For example, they may badger you about working harder at your job, saying you need to do more and get a promotion. You may be perfectly happy with where you are at your job and don’t want more responsibility. Or you might be actively fighting burnout and making choices that promote your health and happiness. But your family frames this as a failure of some kind. 
  • You don’t feel like you’re enough. You feel small and unseen within your family. Whatever choices you make don’t seem quite good enough. There’s always something they think you could be doing better or different. 
  • Unhealthy communication is the norm. Unhealthy communication can look like interrupting one another, not listening, arguing constantly, or making inappropriate comments. 

Where Do Family Expectations Come From?

When your family has high or unrealistic expectations of you, it often stems from their own trauma or them wanting to live vicariously through you.

It’s possible they made mistakes that impacted their lives and don’t want you to repeat those mistakes. They might consider your life opportunities to be far greater than the opportunities they had and don’t want you to “waste” them. They could be afraid you’ll get hurt unless you follow their prescribed path. Or they may be concerned about their status and having the perfect-looking family to the outside world. 

Whatever the case may be, the pressure for you to be or look or behave in certain ways is almost always about your family members. It is about their own fears, desires, and beliefs. It is rarely, if ever, about you. 

It’s important to understand this, because many of my clients reasonably feel hurt by their parents’ actions and demands. It all feels very personal, of course. But the truth is, their behavior usually has nothing to do with you. And when you can separate your self worth from the actions of others, their behaviors start to carry much less weight. You don’t feel as anxious and stressed about pleasing them. And you can begin to decide for yourself what you want in life. 

dealing with family expectations

Dealing With Family Expectations: 5 Ways to Cope

Managing your family’s expectations can be challenging, especially after a lifetime of dealing with them. It can feel really shitty to try and work through these issues. It’s normal to feel angry, anxious, sad, or upset when you’re thinking about how to deal with parents’ expectations in adulthood.

Know that whatever you’re feeling is okay. It takes awareness, patience, and support to step out of the cycles you’ve been involved with for so long. To get you started, here are 5 ways to cope with family expectations. 

  1. Develop awareness of your family dynamics

What are the patterns of behavior in your family? How do each of you typically respond to one another? What are your beliefs and reactions to responses from your family? Answers to questions like these might feel obvious, but family dynamics can be trickier than they seem. Becoming aware of your behavior within your family can give you important insight into what you want to prioritize in your life. 

  1. Figure out your values and goals

If you grew up dealing with family expectations instead of being taught to listen to your own inner compass, you may not have a clear sense of your goals and values in life. Of course, even without heavy family expectations, it can be challenging to figure out what really matters to you. But understanding your motives is crucial in building self-confidence and a sustainable life. Plus, it’s easier to stand up to parents’ expectations when you have a solid foundation of your own.

  1. Remember that pleasing others isn’t your job

You’re your own human. You will inevitably do things that other people find disappointing. But you can’t please everybody – nor should you. Your family may try to project their own values and desires onto you, but doing what feels right for you in your life is your only job.

  1. Be direct

You will likely need to set and maintain firm boundaries with your family. Practice responding to questions or criticisms that may come up frequently. An example of this could be to say, "Stop telling me that I'll change my mind about having kids. I trust my decision about not wanting children." Practicing direct and clear communication with your family can send a message that you expect to be treated with respect and care. 

  1. Decide how much you want to share with your family

If your family doesn’t respond well to your boundaries or your life choices, you may consider sharing less information with them. For instance, if they constantly belittle your partners, you can decide to stop telling them when you’re dating someone new. The decision to share less information with your family can be heartbreaking. But ultimately it can allow for more breathing room to explore your own needs without harsh input.

Therapy Can Help You Manage Difficult Family Expectations

If you want support figuring out how to deal with parents’ expectations, consider therapy. I can help you work through your challenges and set goals so you can step into the world feeling confident, capable, and empowered. You’ll learn to follow your own values, set healthy boundaries, and separate your self worth from others’ opinions.

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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