Last month, I found myself posting an Instagram photo of my son playing at a computer and was internally beaming with pride.
Because I am a freelance writer and I immediately saw my son following in my footsteps. I saw him taking advantage of all the opportunities that I didn’t. I even went as far as to quickly pat myself on the back for my preset determination to help him succeed as a writer.
As I briefly daydreamed about all of his future accomplishments a thought quickly flashed before me, “What if he doesn’t want to be a writer?” Silly, I know. Loving all things reading and writing, why wouldn’t he want to be a writer. It’s then that I realized I have already succumbed to the all too easy trap of living vicariously through my child.
When you hear that phrase, living vicariously through your child. One would immediately have a negative reaction, I know I did.
However, I started exploring this idea of what it means to live vicariously through your child and wondered if there is a healthy way to practice this.
What It Means To Be Vicarious
For one to be vicarious it means that they are experiencing their imaginative thoughts through the feelings or actions of another. In simple terms, they are living life indirectly through others.
Here are a few examples from Your Dictionary,
- Jealous of her friend’s trip to Hawaii, Jessica was living vicariously through her by constantly requesting pictures
- Chief Officers should be vicariously liable for the actions of their officers.
- If you have the desire to ride with Lance Armstrong, you can do it vicariously by becoming a follower of his Twitter page.
If you follow different influencers on social media, it’s likely because you enjoy their pictures and experiences. So in part, you are living vicariously through them. The same can be said if you find yourself consumed by the latest tabloid magazine featuring your favorite movie star or music artist.
Using these examples, living vicariously seems harmless enough. However, according to Better Help, “Living vicariously through others happens from time to time, but when it becomes our only source of experiencing fulfillment in life, it can take us down a dangerous path.”
When It Can Go Bad
Parents live vicariously through their children for varied reasons. Many times it’s with the best intentions because you want your child to have everything you didn’t in life. And other times it’s because you reflect on your own missed opportunities and don’t want your child to miss out as well.
While it’s good to encourage your children to try new things and to not quit or give up easily. It’s another thing when this behavior turns toxic. And it can be difficult to identify where the line is between teaching them a valuable life lesson and forcing them to participate in a task they dislike.
When that line is crossed, it creates a strained relationship between you and your child. Even causing resentment by both parties. And according to Good Therapy,
“In its most extreme forms, living vicariously through a child can be a form of abuse.”
They go on to explain, “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.”
Also, when living vicariously becomes obsessive and toxic you are negatively impacting your child’s mental health. Many children will begin to feel obligated to take part and exceed, leaving them extremely self-critical when they fail. Children can also end up ignoring their passions and dreams, missing out on opportunities, which can ultimately continue this toxic cycle onto their children.
Are You Doing This?
Here are some signs that you may be negatively impacting your child by trying to live vicariously through your child:
- Not allowing your child to quit an activity they don’t find enjoyable.
- Ignoring your child’s requests to participate in new and different activities.
- Seeing your children’s successes as an extension of your sense of self-worth.
- Being extremely critical towards your child’s failures at said activity.
- Placing importance on that activity and ignoring other areas of your child’s life, such as school work, social life, etc.
Although, how do you become the parent that lives vicariously through your child by giving them all the things that you never had, without harming your relationship or them in the process?
When It Goes Right
It’s hard to explain that initial sense of pride I felt when I imagined my son as a future writer. However, it was followed by deep shame as soon as I realized I was imprinting on him my dreams without his permission.
So how do we continue to encourage and push our children to succeed and live vicariously through our child, without damaging your relationship or their future?
We can do this by making sure that we listen to our children about what interests them. As well as listening to what they dislike. And let them try out different activities to help them find their passions. And when they do find their passions we should show an equal amount of enthusiasm and encouragement. Whether they are following in your footsteps or carving their path, parents must be still there on the sidelines cheering them on.
As parents, we need to start focusing on how to live vicariously through our children as they achieve their dreams and follow their passions.
Next time you question whether you are pushing your child too hard consider these things:
- Did they give it a solid try? If your child says they don’t like an activity, try identifying exactly why they don’t like it. Maybe it’s because they don’t feel that they are skilled enough. Or they are unsure of how well they are doing. In these cases, you can teach important lessons about how practice makes perfect and help validate your child’s abilities. By doing this you are helping them learn to find ways to overcome these obstacles.
- Is this an activity you paid for? If you paid for the activity than it’s like that you just want to get your money’s worth. Try having a conversation with your child about sticking it out until the end. Maybe even going and watching on the sidelines to help them get more comfortable with the class. If in the end they still didn’t enjoy it you’ll both know not to sign up for it again.
- Who signed up for this activity, you or them? Make sure you are including your children in the process of finding activities to participate in. This will help them express their interests to you that maybe you didn’t know they had. This will also encourage them to take confidence and hands-on stance when decision making.
- Do you get extremely angry if they fail? If you find yourself becoming extremely angry when your child makes a mistake this may be a sign that you are wanting them to participate in your sense of self-worth. Instead, find ways to encourage your child to keep trying by offering kind and gentle words. As a parent, you should be a safe space for them to find comfort.
Looking back on that photo, I realize it says so much more about my son. It says that he might be a program coder, a teacher, a podcaster, or maybe even a scientist. The possibilities are endless and I can live vicariously through that.