I have often said that children act as a radar, sponge, and mirror: they are constantly scanning the emotional charge in their environment, they are absorbing the words, actions and emotions they witness, and once they are done internalizing all of this content they externalize it and put it back out into the world as their own. What is incredible about these processes is that they happen well below the level of consciousness - children have no awareness of what they, or rather, their brains, are doing.
This, for me, is the starting point of any conversation on parenting. It is the symbolic 'putting the oxygen mask on yourself first,' because parents have to realize just how attuned their children are to their words, actions and emotions. This, of course, doesn't make the task of parenting any easier! It does, however, give parents the opportunity to shift their perspective and 1) become more aware of their own psycho-emotional life, 2) invest in more and/or better self-care, and 3) begin to make intentional choices about how to share their emotions and thoughts with and in front of their children.
Academic and social struggles of their children are often very challenging for parents to tackle because these can invoke very uncomfortable emotions such as disappointment, embarrassment, trepidation, and even anger. So, the first step is for parents to address these away from their children, whether with a professional, or a friend or spouse. It is very unlikely that a child will not sense the presence of these even if their parent doesn't explicitly show them, so trying to 'hide' them will only create greater tension - being honest with children in these situations is far better than the alternative. Sharing with them that you are struggling with your difficult emotions and trying to find the best way to not only deal with them but also help your child, will only strengthen your relationship with them and build greater trust. You will also be teaching them 2 vital life-lessons: 1) that hiding emotions for the sake of appearing a certain way in front of others only leads to further struggles, and 2) that we need to take ownership over our emotions and not blame others for how we feel in any given situation.
While I advocate for an emotionally open and honest relationship between parents and their children, it is vital that this is done in an age-appropriate way; depending on their emotional and verbal developmental stage, some children will be able to comprehend what "disappointment" means, and others won't. When children are very young it is important for parents to stay focused on 1) giving their children lots of opportunities to engage in independent activities (as these will help build their self-esteem gradually) and 2) praising them for their behavioral efforts (e.g. perseverance) not their character traits. This will help to build an internal reward system for children so that, while the praise they get from their parents does positively reinforce desired behaviors, it doesn't become the reason why they strive to do well. And furthermore, it will instill in children a growth-mindset as opposed to a fixed one - an incredibly important psychological and educational concept introduced and developed by Dr. Carol S. Dweck at Stanford University.
As children get older and become more able to experience and understand increasingly complex emotional states, it is perfectly fine to share with them that you are feeling surprised, or worried, or even disappointed with how they are performing academically (or otherwise), but with the aim of letting them know that you are attuned and responsive to them and that you are there to help them help themselves. Not with the aim of using those emotions to propel them into the behavioral change that you desire.
Teodora Pavkovic is a New York City based psychologist, speaker and parenting coach with over 10 years of international experience working with children and parents with emotional and behavioral difficulties, as well as adults with mood and anxiety problems. After spending 8 years in Singapore working with children with special needs as well as adults with mental health issues, she has set up her private practice in New York focused on parenting in the age of technology, and works with teachers, therapists, parents and children. She is often invited to speak, train and facilitate at diverse venues such as schools, co-working spaces, and even museums and coffee shops, and most recently spoke on the topic of "emodiversity" at the TEDxPickeringStreet conference in Singapore this August. Her tips on parenting, well-being, emotional intelligence and other life challenges have appeared in articles on NBC News, Thriveworks, Huffington Post, and others. Her approach is rooted in emotional intelligence and positive psychology, as well as neuroscience research and mindfulness practices.