Stop Living Your Life Through Your Children

Stop Living Your Life Through Your Children

The pain caused when parents place their own unrealized dreams on their children

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”  Carl Jung

The memory of holding my daughter for the first time is as fresh today as it was forty years ago. As the nurse placed her in my impatient, sweaty arms, it felt as if my heart would burst through my chest.   Counting those ten beautiful fingers and toes, the love I felt for this tiny part of my soul swelled throughout my body.   There were no words.  In that one instance, all of my hopes and dreams for her rushed through me like living whispers inside my heart.  Did I translate those dreams to her in that one moment, implanting it into her DNA?  And, what if in reality my hopes and dreams for her were not what she wanted for herself?

In my thirty plus years working with families and teenagers as a high school counselor and now an independent college coach,  I can truly say I never met a parent that didn’t love their child unconditionally and want what they thought was best for them.   I can also say that I have met a large number of unconscious parents who shared their own hopes and dreams with their child with the expectation that their child would follow the parent’s path. To the degree that a parent has lived an unlived life with abandoned dreams and an incomplete realization of their life vision, their child will take up this torch to fulfillment in their own lives, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The impact can be devastating on the child, who becomes so heavily invested in their own parent’s wellbeing, happiness and healing that they will do just about anything to achieve their parent’s dream.   Witnessing this ruination has been difficult for me.    I remember Ben, a bright, energetic junior, gifted in Art and Theater, but determined to fulfill his Mom’s dream and become a doctor.  The one snag in his plan was his low math ability.  In a meeting with Ben’s Mom, I offered several suggestions for careers that would allow him to thrive creatively.  Ignoring Ben’s strengths and talents, Mom became so angry with me during that meeting that she fired me as her son’s counselor.  I ran into Ben a few years ago while he was waiting tables.  When I asked how he was, he told me, “I’ve moved out of the house.  Mom and I don’t talk.  And, I’ve decided Mrs. Keilholtz that college just isn’t for me.”  So sad and such a waste of his talent.

And then there was Christine, a talented, smiling student, who had a gift for fixing things.  She was known around the school as the student who could repair anything electrical: toasters, can openers, printers, even computers.   Her Dad, however, held the unrealistic vision that Chris had to get a degree in Psychology.  “She’s going to be a great counselor. I just know it,” he beamed proudly.  Determined to please her father, she took every academic and AP class she could, getting C’s in most.  I spoke to the father, suggesting majors in Engineering or Business.  He thanked me for my suggestion but told me that he knew what was best for her.  Viewing her through the lens of his own unlived life, I doubted if he really understood her at all. 

I could share many more stories of parents who ignored their child’s talents and strengths determined that their child would fulfill their own plans.  These parents are living their life through their child.  Stop it!  Dr. Joel Friedman, Ph.D. clinical psychologist states the impact best when he said:  “I see adult children who are still sacrificing themselves on the crucible of their parent’s unlived lives, whether in the form of dashed dreams, unrealized values, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and outright despair, misery and suffering.   Each of us, I believe, is born into this life with certain gifts.  One of the roles of parents is to encourage and nurture their child so that those gifts blossom.    I understand that raising children today is difficult.  However, raising them to fulfill your own agenda for your life is an impossible task that brings lifetimes of misery. 

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This article was originally published at Launching College Success. Reprinted with permission from the author.