The pitfalls of living vicariously through children of any age
I orignially wrote this article a few years ago for the Examiner.com site- DC Adult Child Examiner- but it is more relevant than ever. This is a touchy subject, but one which needs to be explored and faced by many parents.
As children grow towards adulthood, it can be a challenge for parents to bridge the gap between childhood to the next stages in their child’s development. Separating their own identity from their child can be a great obstacle for parents.
As children mature, their talents and individual personalities manifest. Often they participate in activities which highlight these gifts and it is a great source of pride for their parents. This is a normal phenomenon which helps the child to be encouraged and increase self esteem. But, in some circumstances, the parent or parents can begin to fixate on their child’s successes in a wholly unhealthy manner. This situation occurs when the parent(s) begin living vicariously through their child. It can begin in early childhood and continue through an adult child’s entire life.
Webster defines: Vicarious 1: serving instead of someone or something else 2: performed or suffered by one person as a substitute for another or to the benefit or advantage of another 3: experienced or realized through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another
Being genuinely happy or proud of a child is not the same as being obsessed with their accomplishments. A parent basking in the child’s light takes away from the child’s accomplishments and achievements. Unhealthy expressions of pride arise when the parent(s) begin to live vicariously through the achievements of the child in ways which can cause embarrassment, discomfort, stress, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness. It becomes more toxic in nature and can put a great deal of pressure and pain on the child. The worst example of this behavior is when parents become violent at sporting events or other types of competition.
In many instances, the unhealthy behavior begins when the amount of time spent on the child’s achievements outweighs the time parents spend on their own lives and pursuits. There needs to be a healthy balance which takes the pressure off of the child and does not make them feel as if their success is always reflected onto the parents. It is critical for the child to feel that their successes are their own and to feel the love and support of parents without the unhealthy obsessive interest.
Parents may use their children as a distraction from their own problems or disappointments, whether they are marital, financial, or an unfulfilled need to feel special. Loneliness, divorce, or other family problems can exacerbate this behavior.
Dysfunctional parents rely on the pursuits and accomplishments of their children when they have none of their own. This is often seen in the case of “Stage Mothers” or fathers who are coaches. It is often the case in families with high profile persons, such as politicians or high-ranking military families when children’s accomplishments are included as an adjunct to their own list of achievements.
It is the height of narcissism to take credit for the achievements of children of any age. Their lives, personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and individuality must be separate from their parents. The older a child is, the more important it is for them to be seen as their own person with their own identity.
Showing interest and appreciation is one of the greatest joys of parenting. As the child matures to an adult, the parent must begin to divest themselves from the activities and lives of the child. It is intrusive to hover over them and insist on being included in all areas of their life.
A healthy distance and space is required in order for the child to develop into the person they are, separate and apart from their parents and family. It is not productive or loving to insist on being part of every aspect of their lives. In fact, parents should feel a sense of relief at the prospect of having more time for their own pursuits and activities and for the focus to shift on to other parts of their lives.
Being a loving, concerned, involved parent is not the same as living vicariously through a child. The toxic part occurs when it is overdone, excessive, obsessive, and intrusive.
Being a loving family and sustaining healthy relationships comes down to viewing each family member as an individual who is loved whether they triumph or fail. Respecting children’s choices and differences, as they grow to adulthood, is key to building and nurturing the healthiest relationships possible.