Now consider this question: Have your parents always consistently pushed you to reach your goals, and assisted you throughout this whole journey? Maybe yes, because your family’s quite well-off; maybe no, you’ve always had to save pocket money to get new pencils. And finally, ask yourself this: Who is actually pushing you to achieve your dream, you or your parents?
Be careful, because some parents use their children to live out their dreams. These parents live vicariously through the achievements of their children and, in fact, desire their children to fulfill their own unrealized ambitions.
In a study headed by Eddie Brummelman, PhD, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, researchers learned that parents who focused on their own unfulfilled ambitions — as opposed to focusing on the ambitions of someone they knew — were more likely to want their kids to follow the same dreams they did. Most of the parents who thought this way were also unable to see their kids as individuals, as opposed to extensions of themselves.
One parent who had such a problem explained, “The overbearing part isn’t like outright aggression, it’s more (of) a subtle push to have them embrace the sport that has defined my life, and hopefully succeed where I failed.”
What type of parents are more likely to push their children to fulfill their dreams? To learn more, I interviewed Dr. Susan Heitler, clinical psychologist and author of Prescriptions Without Pills. She says that parents who have a tendency toward narcissism, which keeps them hyper-focused on their own desires, are most likely to assume that what they want is what their child wants, and they “relate to family members much like a knight in shining armor riding atop a tall steed who can barely see or hear the voices of the tiny little people living amidst the horse's hooves.”
The scariest part? All children are at risk of replacing their own desires with the desires of their parents. Realistically, Dr. Heitler says, that’s a good thing with important survival value, but children are most likely to give in to their parents if the parents are quick to express their unhappiness over what the child wants, such as your father scolding you for going to an arts school or your mother frowning when you tell her you won an award for sports but not for academics. “Also, some children seem by nature to be especially eager to please their parents, be it out of love or fear,” she adds.
But even though parents’ desires to achieve their childhood goals are understandable, Dr. Madeline Levine, author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, says the cost of this relentless drive to perform is a “generation of kids who resemble nothing so much as trauma victims.” Dr. Levine continues, “They (the kids) become preoccupied with events that have passed, obsessing endlessly on a possible wrong answer or missed opportunity. They are anxious and depressed and often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Sleep is difficult and they walk around in a fog of exhaustion. Other kids simply fold their cards and refuse to play.” Not good.
There are so many downsides to parents pushing their children to fulfill their dreams. The children may be obsessed over it, get depressed due to everlasting pressure, and miss out on the chance to follow their own dreams. For example, many kids in Asian countries with strong exam cultures are forced to attend tuition session after tuition session because their parents want them to get “good jobs,” like being a doctor or lawyer, and not “bad” ones, like an artist.
Another scary thing about fulfilling your parents’ dreams is that you may miss out on your childhood. While other kids can play outdoors and just be regular kids, you are stuck indoors because your parents won’t let you miss your violin lessons. This may result in a strained relationship with your string-and-bow, especially if you’re not interested in that instrument (or music) at all. A few years ago, Dr. Heitler wrote about a boy named Paul who was forced to practice five hours a day on the tennis court because his father wanted him to be a tennis star, and after college, now has a love-hate relationship with the game. “I love it, but I never play any more because I also hate it for making me miss out on being a kid."
However, sometimes your parents push you to do something you may detest, but it ultimately turns out for the better. For example, do you remember when you were five and your parents always forced you to eat your veggies? Back then, you argued and protested and threw tantrums all the time, but when you grow up (though I hate to admit this), you become thankful because leafy greens are good for your health. Situations in which your parents are putting healthy stress on you or pushing you to do something that you enjoy or that is good for you are definitely beneficial, and are not instances of your parents’ forcing you to fulfill their dreams. You must be able to differentiate between these two scenarios.
How do you know if your parent is getting you to fulfill their dreams?
1. They had an unfulfilled dream in their life and sometimes obsess over what could have been.
2. They lose touch with their own aspirations (even though it’s not too late to fulfill their dreams). Their one obsession is your “dream.”
3. You feel unhappy with this dream. You're not enthusiastic about it and dread the endless hours of practice.
4. They are doing all the work for you, and are more obsessed over it than you are.
5. They may cut corners and do morally questionable things for your dreams.
6. They set way too high expectations for you and don’t accept failure.
7. You think that the motivation and pressure is coming more from them than from you, and you may not be able to cope with such stress.
8. They believe in career myths. They think that STEM careers equal millionaire, playing football equals instant glory, and acting equals worldwide fame.
9. They think that your success is an indicator of their parenting success, and that you’re an extension of themselves.
10. They are “helicopter parents”: people who are overprotective, hover around their child, and get involved in the child’s affairs and activities excessively.
And now the most important issue of all: How can you get out of this trap of pushiness?
Well, there is a very thin line between your parents’ “assisting” you (allowing you to pursue your dreams) and “guiding” (forcing you, directly/indirectly) or “helping” you (doing the work for you). You will need to make this clear to your parents.
You can suggest to your parents that you all have should sit down for a conversation about your independence and how you should be allowed to pursue your own dreams (or how they can put less pressure on you or shouldn’t be too pushy about your dream). Get some snacks and water, too, because nobody likes difficult conversations when they are hungry, thirsty, or crabby. Discuss the whole problem and tell your parents in a firm but calm manner (remember, I said firm but calm) that you should be allowed to fulfill your own dreams. “Children who learn to calmly explain what they want may in general be most effective,” says Dr. Heitler. Shouting at your parents won’t work, and will make them less willing to listen to you. (Not to mention, you may get grounded.) Make your point clear, but don’t attack them personally. Address their behavior, not their looks or personality. Your parents may feel hurt, angry, embarrassed, ashamed, and insulted and may punish you anyway, but let them have some time and space to cool down. All humans make mistakes, and being told you’re applying too much pressure on your child makes anyone uncomfortable. But if your parents are able to calm down and see how this impacts your life, they will loosen their grip and let you have more freedom. and less pressure. With this, you can finally take the first step to become a world-class children’s book illustrator.
However, some parents simply don’t listen. In these cases, actions, such as ceasing to win tournaments, speak louder than words. But this should be your last resort.
But maybe you don’t have a clear plan for what you want to do. If this is the case, you should try different things and see where your strength lies. Have a taste of different careers and hobbies. You’re still young, and you don’t need to specialize too early. Plus, you can even use career assessment tools and seek guidance from expert career planners.
Most importantly, you should never be afraid to chase your own dreams. You are not your parents’ puppet. You are you.
Bansal, Ayush. "Dear Parents, Stop Forcing Your Dreams On Your Children And Listen To This." Youth Ki Awaaz, August 1, 2016. https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2016/08/note-to-indian-parents/.
Brummelman, Eddie, et al. "My Child Redeems My Broken Dreams: On Parents Transferring Their Unfulfilled Ambitions onto Their Child." PLoS ONE 8, no 6 (June 2013): e65360. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0065360.
Everyday Health Editors. "Some Parents Live Out Dreams Through Their Children, Study Confirms." Everyday Health, June 17, 2013. https://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/some-parents-live-out-dreams-through-their-children-8685.aspx.
Heitler, Susan. "You're Here to Fulfill My Dreams." Psychology Today, November 9, 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201111/youre-here-fulfill-my-dreams.
Nelson, Daryl. "How Parents' Unfulfilled Dreams Can Affect Their Children." ConsumerAffairs, July 8, 2013. https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/how-parents-unfulfilled-dream-can-affect-their-children-070813.html.
Thee Sim Ling is a 13-year-old who lives in Singapore. She hopes to be a mystery writer under the pen name of Lucinda Thee (lucindathee.com). Besides that, she also likes to make websites with HTML (which is not as easy as it looks, mind you).
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