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 football or any other game they like or even 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.
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.
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 fulfil 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.