Wednesday 26 October 2016

The warning signs: Are you living vicariously through your children?

Parents put too much pressure on children when they try to live out their own dreams through them, writes Olivia Willis

Olivia Willis

Published 05/10/2016 | 02:30

The dad stood right behind the goalpost, coaching his nine-year-old son from behind the net of his soccer game.

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His son had two volunteer coaches there, but that didn't matter. He was determined to coach him separately.

"Get ready. He's coming. Brace yourself."

"Move fast now. Hands up. Stay alert. Come on!"

It was non-stop.

And guess what happened next?

A lad from the opposing team (my son's team) kicked the ball right past him. Goal! Right into the back of the net.

The tears were instant, and all I wanted to say to that father of the goalie was, "Just. Leave. Him. Alone. Let him play himself."

That poor nine-year-old was devastated and let in a further two goals in the last 10 minutes of the game.

It's not the first time I've witnessed such parenting behaviour. I'm sure if you are a parent to a child who plays sport, or has an after-school or weekend activity, you've seen it countless times: parents who are overly-invested in their child's success, wanting to see their child achieve in sports, music, academics, you name it. It can take the form of both high praise and sharp criticism.

So I pose this question: are pushy parents who go to great lengths to make their children succeed attempting to make up for their own failed dreams? Do these parents feel as though they didn't achieve what they wanted in their own life and now, on some level, feel like failures? Are these parents trying to fulfil their own goals by turning their children into winners?

What's so tragic about this behaviour is that children feel like they've got to perform. They've got to win! Surely that's not healthy?

Kids need to gain ownership of their participation in the sport or activity they're involved in. They need to feel that it is their thing. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to your children gaining that ownership of their activity occurs when you commandeer that ownership to meet your own needs.

For instance, there are a number of warning signs to look out for and to judge whether you are putting your own needs ahead of those of your kids.

Sports may actually become more important to you than to your kids. This overzealous interest on your part, instead of promoting their participation, undermines their interest by taking away 'their' ownership of 'their' sport.

Ask yourself have you entered the "we" zone? Have you began talking about your children's participation in terms of how "we" did? For example, "We had a great game today", or "We qualified for the final".

Ask yourself, are you more nervous before competitions than your kids are? Are you more excited when they succeed, and more disappointed when they don't? Are you more concerned with results, points and rankings than the benefits of their participation? If the results of your darling's competitions take precedence over the fun and life lessons learned, then it might be time to check yourself.

Sports are seductive. Yet fame and fortune resulting from your kids' athletic success or music, for example, only comes if they have the talent and determination to reach that level and, most importantly, if the opportunity gives rise.

The odds of your child becoming the next Pelé, Usain Bolt or Ed Sheeran are also infinitely small. I'm not saying that your children shouldn't dream big (if they don't aim for the stars, they may not even get to the top of the hill), but that shouldn't be your entire focus as parents.

Life today is so very demanding. Be careful that you are not in danger of pushing your kids harder and harder, even when they may not be prepared for the increased demands. Their development can't be rushed; the necessary time and effort has to be put in and your children have to be allowed to develop at their own pace, or like the little nine-year-old goalkeeper, it could all end in tears.

Kids who become victims of a vicarious parent can end up not only playing below their abilities because of the anxiety they experience, but end up disliking the sport or activity entirely, and then what was it all for?

Ask yourself are you pushing your child to play a sport or an instrument even when the child doesn't really want to anymore. Be honest about this for a minute. Is your child playing only to please you? He may say he wants to play just because he knows that's what you want.

Look for signs that he is/is not passionate about his activity: does he choose to play when he doesn't have to? Does he dread practices, games or performances? Does he not ever want to talk about the activity? What do the answers tell you?

Also know that kids are often intimidated to tell their parents they are being pushed too hard, so just because they haven't said anything doesn't mean you're not doing it.

It's so important to positive parent from the sidelines by modelling supportive behaviour - cheer and be supportive, rather than yelling and humiliating kids from the audience.

At the end of the day, we have to remember that this whole parenting lark is not about us, but about passing on a legacy of character and integrity, of hard work and good responses to what life throws at us. So that they will one day do the same.

Olivia Willis is the co-founder of, an Irish family website with information for parents, things to do, daily blogs, reviews and expert family advice

Irish Independent

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