Sometimes when kids don’t succeed fully, it reverberates with parents’ own dread of failure, leading to personalized reactions, or overreactions, and a cascade of negative cycles between parents and children.
Certain families with children who are not high achievers, or who have impediments, are more vulnerable. These are families with: 1) children who are inherently less driven than their high-achieving parents; and 2) parents with histories of disadvantage or present-day unhappiness who have invested their lives and identities into fulfilling a vision of their children’s success.
Why Some Parents Overreact
In both of these family constellations, the boundary between the parent’s identity and the child’s becomes obscured. When this happens, parents lose perspective, elevate the stakes, and become personally reactive, obstructing their ability to see and work with their child’s particular personality, strengths, and interests.
Noah was a successful athlete and lawyer from a family of high achievers. He worked hard but, unlike his son, Max (an 8th grader), being driven came easily for him, and he was used to a feeling of mastery. Frustrated by his son’s apparent lack of focus and perseverance, Noah sometimes had trouble relating to Max’s personality. Though typically confident, Noah could lapse into feeling uncharacteristically defeated and helpless when it came to Max, triggering anxiety and doubt about himself as a parent.
Max stormed to his room in anger and frustration after the game. Though he was a talented athlete, he didn’t measure up to his dad or brother, and was hard on himself – causing him to avoid practice at times. Unlike with sports, however, Max wasn’t a natural student, and similar tearful, explosive episodes were a familiar scene around homework, too.
Noah, preoccupied with his vision of his son’s potential, micromanaged Max’s game and homework – coaching and prompting him, pointing out mistakes, and suggesting strategies. But when he tried to help, it made things worse. Max got more upset, and the anger escalated on both sides.
Unproductive Parenting Patterns
Unproductive parenting patterns may develop when children’s failures (real, perceived or anticipated) fuel parents’ anxiety and discomfort.