Unhealthy family expectations can be difficult to deal with, and you may not even realize they’re present in your life. If you have experienced any of the following, your parent or family member may have too high expectations for you.

Signs of unhealthy parental expectations in childhood

  • You were harshly criticized
  • You weren’t praised often
  • When you were praised, it only led to more responsibility
  • You were expected to look after or discipline your younger siblings
  • You had to take on roles such as cooking or cleaning for the family, sometimes even if it wasn’t safe
  • Your parents made you feel responsible for their feelings
  • Your needs weren’t met
  • You never learned to set boundaries

Signs of unhealthy parental expectations in adulthood

  • You don’t feel respected
  • There is a severe lack of communication
  • You feel controlled
  • Your parents mock your choices, goals, or dreams
  • Your family knows how to push your buttons, and do it constantly
  • You are constantly called names
  • You are made to feel self-conscious
  • Events and get-togethers are unpredictable
  • They still have unrealistic expectations
  • Your goals are considered ‘whims’ or ‘phases’
  • There is emotional abuse, gaslighting, or inappropriate comments
  • There is physical abuse

What causes unhealthy expectations in families?

There are many causes for unhealthy expectations. When unreasonable expectations are placed on your parents, this allows the behavior to flow down through generations, meaning that breaking the habit is very difficult.

Perhaps it stems from unfulfilled goals your parents held, meaning they try to live vicariously through their children. In more serious cases, there might be substance abuse, enabling family members, or unfortunate life events which have caused unresolved trauma.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all reason why unhealthy expectations arise, which can make dealing with it that much more complicated.

How to deal with unhealthy family expectations

Family expectations are always present, but their severity can differ, as well as the reasons they exist. Overall, the best way to handle unreasonable family expectations is head on.

This might include confronting the family member, or even taking some family therapy to get to the root cause of the issue. While this is the recommended route to really solve the problem completely, there are some coping mechanisms you can adopt to make life a little easier in the meantime.

1. Decide what you want

When you are so used to hearing your parent’s expectations, it can be difficult to decide exactly what it is that you want. Whether it’s a particular career path, a certain partner, or a certain level of success, hearing about it all the time can make it start to feel like it is your own goal.

The first thing to do when dealing with unhealthy parental expectations is to stop listening to them. That doesn’t mean you have to ignore them, but it does mean you should really think about what feels right for you, and decide what you want out of life.

2. Choose what to share and what to keep private

When parents have particularly high expectations, they don’t necessarily need to hear about everything that’s going on in your life. If you know they won’t approve, you don’t need to tell them.

You know what your parents will approve of or not, so it might be a good idea to keep some things private so that an argument or disapproval doesn’t come into play. Although it might feel dishonest, it puts valuable distance between you and your parents’ expectations so that you can figure out what you need and what you want to pursue.

3. Make a plan

Planning out interactions with family can seem a little bizarre at first, but it can make handling high expectations much easier. With a solid idea of what you want to talk about, and what you don’t, you can walk in feeling a little more confident.

If your parents and family ask lots of questions, practice answering them in a way that makes you feel comfortable, or practice telling them you don’t want to talk about it. Getting comfortable by thinking about those conversations will make them easier when they do come up.

4. Learn how to detach

One of the most important skills you can learn is how to detach from a toxic situation, or that makes you uncomfortable.

Removing yourself from arguments or those circumstances that arguments arise and aiming to keep conversations light by avoiding topics that stir up emotions is the best way to keep interactions positive. If you can’t avoid those conversations, learn to walk away from a situation when it’s clear that things are going south.

5. Be comfortable with the word ‘no’

‘No’ is a powerful word. It allows you to set boundaries and not have to compromise important elements of your life. But, be prepared. Saying no is not always easy, and your family may not accept it.

If your family has high expectations and is particularly stubborn that you should meet them, they may try to persuade you to change your mind, or guilt you into feeling like you have to meet their beliefs. Don’t feel like you have to explain yourself, the fact you don’t want to do something is enough to ask someone to back off.

6. Accept that you can’t change them

Expectations are formed for different reasons, but they are very hard to let go of. Parents with high expectations have difficulties letting go because it invokes feelings linked to disappointment and being let down. That is not your cross to bear.

Accept that those family expectations may never go away and that you can’t change someone. Take your parent or family member for who they are and do your best to work around those difficult conversations.

7. Plan gatherings when it suits everyone

When a parent or family member has high expectations, one of those expectations is that you are to work around them. This removes any power you have in the situation. Begin to set boundaries around times and occasions that are important to you, and don’t feel like you have to miss out because of your family.

Give your family times and places that suit you and allow them to pick from options that you have decided on. Make your own travel arrangements and be clear about when you are available and how long for. Taking back power in these simple ways can mean you don’t have to be stuck when those high expectations raise their ugly heads.

8. Consider cutting ties

Cutting ties is no small thing and should be saved for relationships that are particularly toxic and damaging. Sometimes high familial or parental expectations can lead to other things, becoming harmful or mentally draining.

However, be aware of how difficult it will be. A parent who doesn’t respect your boundaries will not accept being cut off, and they may lie or manipulate you to maintain contact. It is your choice if you want to cut ties, but you should try to seek some help and support in order to do so.

We all have our family expectations to consider, and they can lead us to great places if they are coupled with help, care, and support. However, when a parent has impossible expectations or simply doesn’t accept the person or career you want to pursue, things can get hard.

You have a right to decide your own future, and when things get toxic, don’t be afraid to walk away for your own sake. It might be the best thing you do.


  1. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ886120.pdf
  2. https://counselingcenter.illinois.edu

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