GET A LIFE! WHEN PARENTS WON’T LET GO

Family Circle Column, ‘The Teen Years’
Featured article, January 12, 1993

Robby Jensen’s* basketball career began when he was 4-years old. It’s just that he didn’t know it. It was all part of his father’s grand plan for him. Richard Jenson, the star of his high school’s basketball team, had won an athletic scholarship to a major university and continued to enjoy the sport as an adult. He couldn’t wait to play ‘one-on-one’ with his son.

Are you living through your teenager?

For Robby’s birthday that year, Richard gave him a small basketball, installed a hoop in their driveway and introduced his son to his beloved sport. Robbie seemed to enjoy it and, like most little boys, basked in the attention from his father. Over the years, Robby and his dad had a good time playing basketball on weekends. But by the time Robby was in junior high, their games became more intense. Richard constantly criticized his son’s play and pushed him to excel. Robby began to resent his father’s pressure.

Robby’s mother, Sally, sensed her son’s unhappiness and spoke to her husband about it. “Honey, Robby has other activities too. He’s taking guitar lessons, and he’s playing softball,” she reminded Richard. “He’s even admitted to me that he doesn’t like basketball. I think you should ease up on him.” “Nonsense! The kid loves the game, just like I did,“ Richard replied. “He knows he’s good—he’s got my skill.”

Eventually Robby started finding excuses to avoid weekend practice with his dad—even lying to him on occasion. Richard became angry. “You have to keep practicing,” he yelled. “How else do you expect to make the team?” But Robby had already made up his mind—he was not going to try out for basketball. What had begun as an enjoyable way for a little boy to spend time with his father had ended up causing a teenager and his dad to become estranged. Their relationship gradually deteriorated. Robby knew he was disappointing his father and felt guilty for making him sad and angry. But he didn’t understand why he should be expected to like the same sports his father was so enthusiastic about.

All parents harbor hopes and fantasies about how their child will live his or her adult life. Unfortunately, it’s quite common for parents to use their children to fulfill their own hopes and dreams. Although Richard Jenson did not realize it at the time, he was trying to relive his athletic life through his son. But living through a child, or depending on a child to provide a sense of meaning or completeness to one’s own life, can destroy the crucial bond between parent and child.

There is nothing wrong with parents exposing their children to the same activities, ideas or hobbies that have given them so much pleasure in life. In fact, this desire to share oneself with another is, in part, what psychotherapists call “healthy narcissism.”

* All names and characters are fictitious

But there is a difference between exposing your child to your world and imposing it. Living through a youngster demonstrates parental self-centeredness. A parent consciously or unconsciously wants to control the child in order to justify a personal point of view. If the child resists, the parent may feel rejected.

Once children reach adolescence, self-centered parents are often challenged. As a teen’s identity is forming, she is gaining independence and moving away from parental control. Parents who have unresolved feelings of inadequacy stemming from their own adolescence, often attempt to influence and pressure their teenagers.

 

Joan Warren, the mother of two, had always wanted to be a lawyer. During college, however, she became pregnant, married her boyfriend and dropped out of school. From the day her daughter Helena was born, Joan secretly vowed that the child would one day practice law.

Joan started making her intentions known when Helena was in high school. She would not listen to Helena’s arguments against going to law school. Helena couldn’t talk to her father either. He would often say he’d be proud to have an attorney for a daugher. Yet Helena displayed no interest in the legal profession.

Instead, she seemed to be turning into everything her mother was not: Joan was compulsively neat, Helena was disorganized; Helena loved to socialize, Joan preferred to stay home with a good book; Joan had very little interest in art; Helena, on the other hand, was a superb artist and had decided on a career in graphic design.

When Helena bought home only average college-board scores, Joan exploded: “How do you think you’ll ever get into college with scores like that?” Helena threw her schoolbooks on the kitchen floor and screamed at her mother: “I’m sorry I don’t get the grades you want. And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be a lawyer!” Then she stormed out of the house. The two did not speak for several days.

 

A parent who cannot resolve unfinished business in her own life may end up complicating her relationship with her child. Because Joan is so angry with herself for not achieving her ambition, she could not separate her own needs from her daughter’s. What could have developed into a close and loving mother-daughter relationship may be permanently impaired.

Richard Jenson, on the other hand, was able to repair the damage done to his relationship with Robby. After talking it over with his wife, Richard began to see that his son was a separate and unique human being who was entitled to his own likes and dislikes. After they had a heart-to-heart talk, Robby stopped feeling so anxious and pressured around his dad, and their relationship began to mend.

Parents can guard against living through a child by learning to accept and respect individuality. Parents who impose their own desires on a youngster limit the child’s growth. Instead of feeling free to explore the world and all the possible choices in life, the child grows up with the ever-present pressure that he or she must please the parent in order to win approval.

If your child’s talents and sensitivities lead him down a different road from your own, he still needs to know he has your support and unconditional love. It is never too late to become a more sensitive and less judgmental parent. By acknowledging and dealing with your own disappointments and childhood conflicts, you can establish a richer and more rewarding relationship with your child.

Are You Living Through Your Teenager?

  • Do you harbor some disappointment from your past that you have been unable to make up for?
  • Where you a star athlete (or a frustrated one), and have you imagined our child succeeding in your sport?
  • If you were unable to attend a certain school or go into a specific profession, do you often think of your child in your place?
  • Do you imagine your teen working with your or taking over your business—even when she has not demonstrated any desire to do so?
  • Do you sense that your child keeps things from you because he knows you will be disappointed?
  • Do you become frustrated or even angry when your child fails at something that you excelled at?