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Are You a Stage Mama?

Remember when you didn’t make the cheerleading squad (insert: soccer team, academic decathlon, first chair in the orchestra, lead role in the play, etc.)? Or maybe you did poorly in school, were overweight, promiscuous or shy. When you look back on your early years, you have regrets or still fantasize about what could have been. Or perhaps you were the best: starting quarterback, straight-A student, homecoming queen—the consummate overachiever. In either case, these landmark childhood experiences shaped who you are today, are imprinted in your memory and directly impact how you parent. So when you encourage your kid to play sports, make friends, work harder or join a club, how can you know if it is for the right reasons? Are you doing it for your kid’s benefit? Or are you motivated by your own memories, fantasies and insecurities?

We feel pain for their pain, joy for their joy and pride in their accomplishments.

Who’s Really in Charge Here?

Most people have a hard time believing that they live through their kids. It is easier, of course, to believe that the choices made are based solely on what is best for kids—I mean, what kind of parent makes their kids do things just for their own gratification, right? The truth is, though, that to a degree we all live through our kids. We feel pain for their pain, joy for their joy and pride in their accomplishments. Although this is often normal, at times it can go too far.

The subconscious mind is a tricky thing to navigate. Many times the reasons for your choices go deeper than you are aware. Because your self-image probably includes the notion that you make choices for your kids based on what is best for them, your conscious mind often naturally resists any evidence to the contrary. You instinctively seek out or pay more attention to information that confirms your beliefs about yourself. This phenomenon is commonly known as “confirmation bias.” It leaves you feeling that you are in charge of your motives; that you think things through and use logic and instinct to make decisions.

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Although this is sometimes true, your subconscious is in charge of your choices in ways that that may be tough to accept. For example, if you were particularly motivated as a child (whether it came naturally, from your parents or both), not only will you be more likely to value this behavior in others, but you’ll also be more likely to be driven as an adult and parent, and instinctively more comfortable with similar behavior from your kids. Consequently, you’ll be more likely to encourage what you perceive as “motivated behaviors” and discourage, or simply ignore, behaviors that appear to lack this quality. Although this does not add up to living vicariously through your kid, it is the first step in understanding the phenomenon.

Encouraging kids to do things that you either struggled with or excelled at is not necessarily a bad thing, but the challenge often comes when things don’t go as expected. Your child isn’t interested, fails or performs far above expectations. The emotions that you experience as a result of your child’s achievements and behaviors can quickly connect you to the feelings you had growing up. These feelings—whether positive or negative—subconsciously influence the choices you make the next time you encounter the unexpected behavior. Will you push your kid to do better? Let him quit? Criticize or encourage? These choices are the moment of truth, and they are not always decided by conscious processes.

But I’m Not Living Through My Kid … Am I?

If you’re starting to wonder whether you are damaging your child by trying to resolve your childhood scars or reliving your glory days by pushing them in unhealthy ways, here are some things to look out for:

  • As a result of their successes or failures, you feel (or others observe you as appearing to feel) more intense experiences of success, pride, disappointment or failure than your child.
  • Your feelings are opposite your child’s—When they feel excited, you feel disappointed, or when they fail, you feel relieved.
  • Your child repeats desires to stop certain activities or seems consistently resistant to things you want him to do or not do, yet you continue to feel driven to push these things.
  • Your find yourself thinking or feeling negative or judgmental things about your child’s interests, opinions, appearance, friends, etc., even though your child shows enthusiasm about these things.

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Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list, if you identify with any of these things, it is time to take step back and work on yourself. Remember, you are not alone—this is a very common issue between parents and kids. The challenge is also remembering that it is your responsibility to adapt to your kids’ needs, not the other way around. A happier and more fulfilled you is the first step to a happier and more fulfilled child.

The Answer Lies Within

OK, great, you live too much through your kids. Now what? Don’t despair. One of the greatest things about kids of all ages is their resilience. If you work on you, it’s likely you’ll be able to repair any damage. The most essential task in achieving this is gaining more self-awareness. Try writing about memories from your childhood (both good and bad). Don’t worry about grammar or structure or what anyone else would think about it; just let yourself write freely and see what comes out. Writing is a different, and often more effective, process than sitting and thinking about issues, so don’t be afraid to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). While you’re writing, try to let go of thinking specifically about how the things you’re writing relate to you as a parent or to your child’s interests or behaviors. Simply start writing, see what comes out and follow it. This exercise can also be done in the form of a written letter to either of your parents (or both), a letter to a sibling or other significant person from your childhood, or even a letter from you to your younger self. If you choose the letter route, don’t send it—it’s just for you.

The primary purpose of these tasks is to bring greater conscious awareness of subconscious processes that may be influencing your choices. When you're aware of what's going on in your brain, you'll be better able to separate your own needs and wants from those of your child. If writing does not appeal to you, talk to a trusted friend (or a therapist, if needed) with whom you can be brutally honest about your life, and you may achieve a similar effect. Listen to the people in your life whose opinions you value, especially if their observations about you challenge your vision of yourself. Finally, and most importantly, listen to your kid. Notice the operative words here are listen to, not talk to. Although there are some times in your child’s life when your job is to help drive them, listening carefully and respecting your child’s feelings, desires and interests will not only help them live their own lives, but it will also help them feel that you are a source of respect, understanding and encouragement rather than of pressure and frustration.

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Remember, we all have just one life to live. It might as well be our own.

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