A Dream Deferred: Are You Living Vicariously Through Your Child?

Boy showing his soccer mom the trophy he won in summer campNo life is free of disappointment. For some people, disappointment is a passing frustration or perhaps a reason to try harder to achieve a different dream. Some parents, however, deal with disappointment by living vicariously through their children.

Although many people have witnessed this phenomenon at sports games, spelling bees, and parent-teacher conferences, few researchers have studied it. A 2013 study was one of the first to provide experimental evidence that parents do indeed attempt to redeem broken dreams through their children. The researchers found that parents can feel pride in their children’s achievements and even heal old wounds. When taken to extremes, however, living vicariously through a child can damage both the child and the parent.

Signs You May be Living Vicariously Through Your Child

It can be difficult for parents to decide whether they’re involved and supportive or obsessed with pushing their children to fulfill their own broken dreams. Most parents encourage children to do things the parents enjoy. For example, parents who love reading may take their children to bookstores, while avid gardeners may relish spending time in the yard with dirt-loving toddlers. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as parents follow a child’s lead and allow children to pursue their own interests.

Some signs that you might be living vicariously through your child include:

  • Becoming obsessively involved in your child’s activities, at the expense of your own well-being or hobbies. This behavior is sometimes called helicopter parenting.
  • Forcing children to do things they don’t want to do that are either unnecessary or offer no additional benefits. For example, all children must eat their vegetables and go to school, but there is no reason a child needs to do a specific activity, such as football or art camp.
  • Making decisions about your child’s life because of your own disappointments. For example, a parent might be living vicariously if they refuse to let a child quit basketball because the parent regrets quitting basketball.
  • Seeing your child’s behavior and activities as a reflection of your own worth.
  • Ignoring your child’s needs or interests. For instance, a parent might push their child to take art classes when that child really wants to play baseball.
  • Punishing a child for poor performance at extracurricular activities.
  • Experiencing intense emotions related to your child’s athletic or academic performance.
  • Telling your child how to think and feel about certain hobbies or goals. For instance, if a child insists that they hate baseball, a parent might angrily tell the child not to feel that way.

Why Parents Project Dreams Onto Their Children

Most parents want their children to have excellent lives. For many, this means encouraging children not to make the same mistakes they did, Many parents also feel pressure to give their kids certain advantages or to conform to an unrealistic ideal of parenthood. Parenting culture can be competitive, shame-inducing, and exhausting. When combined with a parent’s regret about their own childhood, it’s easy to see why some parents project dreams onto their children.

Most parents do not intend to harm their children and truly believe they are doing what is in a child’s best interests. It’s important to look beyond your motives and consider the role your emotions and experiences might play in your parenting decisions.

For a small minority of parents, children can act as a narcissistic supply. These parents may use their children as a way to gain acclaim or attention. This behavior pattern is prevalent among people with narcissistic personality, though not all people who do this have NPD. If you use your child to feel good about yourself, you may be behaving narcissistically.

Why Your Children Can’t Fill Your Dreams

Children are separate people from their parents. They inevitably develop different interests and dreams, even when they also share much in common with their parents. Attempting to fulfill a dream through a child is inherently harmful because it ignores that child’s individuality. Pushing a child into a predetermined role can snuff out the child’s unique gifts and interests, preventing the child from achieving their own dreams or realizing their own potential.

When parents try to get their own needs met by living vicariously through their offspring, it puts tremendous pressure on the child and reverses the proper roles.In a healthy parent-child relationship, love and support flow from the parent to the child. Attempting to fill emotional voids through a child can cause a parent to ignore a child’s needs or fail to give the child the unconditional love and support that are hallmarks of good parenting.

In its most extreme forms, living vicariously through a child can be a form of abuse. Parents may aggressively pigeonhole a child into a role, ignoring the child’s needs and feelings. Some parents even become physically or emotionally abusive in an attempt to get their children to excel at certain activities. These parents might spank their children for not practicing piano or insult a child’s appearance before a beauty pageant.

As children grow and learn, their key task is one of individuation—separating from their parents and establishing a unique identity. Parents must help them do this by supporting children to pursue their own dreams. When parents are unwilling or unable to do this, children’s emotional and intellectual growth may be stunted. This can make it difficult for children to succeed as adults, to feel a sense of self-efficacy, or to make decisions without a parent’s input.

How Therapy Can Help You Live Your Own Life

“It is a parent’s job to do what is in their children’s best interest. That includes the parent dealing with his or her own emotions in ways that best further the healthy development of the children. When parents try to get their own needs met by living vicariously through their offspring, it puts tremendous pressure on the child and reverses the proper roles. In this scenario the child is being pressured to meet their parent’s needs, which is very destructive to proper child development.  In order to avoid this course, parents are wise to seek out psychological help so that they can process their feelings and unmet needs with a professional instead of burdening their children with those feelings and needs,” says Johannes Kieding, LCSW, a Tucson, Arizona, psychotherapist.

Therapy can help both parents and children deal with the harmful aftermath of vicarious living. Family therapy can help families manage conflicts stemming from this harmful parenting style by giving children a voice, fostering effective communication, and providing a safe space to discuss alternative parenting strategies.

Parents who feel compelled to live vicariously through a child can also find great relief from individual therapy. A therapist can:

  • Help a parent grieve the loss of their childhood ambitions.
  • Support a parent to set new goals and find new ways to fulfill their dreams.
  • Offer insight into parenting style and provide feedback on whether a parent is supporting their child’s dreams in a healthy way.
  • Address issues of identity. Some parents derive their sole source of identity from their children. This can initiate a cycle of guilt, shame, frustration, and resentment. A therapist can disrupt this cycle by supporting parents to establish separate identities.

A compassionate therapist can help you live a life of purpose without foisting your dreams onto your child.

References:

  1. Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Slagt, M., Overbeek, G., Castro, B. O., & Bushman, B. J. (2013). My child redeems my broken dreams: On parents transferring their unfulfilled ambitions onto their child. PLOS ONE, 8(6). Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0065360
  2. Diagnostic criteria for 301.81 narcissistic personality disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://behavenet.com/diagnostic-criteria-30181-narcissistic-personality-disorder

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