Let’s be honest. Life can be disappointing. And for some people, that disappointment or frustration can push a person to try harder to achieve their dreams. But for some parents, they deal with those life disappointments by living vicariously through their children. We’re sure you’ve seen it; overbearing “wanna-be coach” dads and overdramatic stage moms. In 2013, a study was done to provide evidence that vicarious living both exists and has effects. Researchers found that parents can feel pride in their children’s achievements and even heal old wounds. When taken to extremes, however, living vicariously through a child can damage both the child and the parent.

Why Parents Project Their Dreams

 The goal of most parents is to be able to provide more for their kids than they had growing up. For many, this also includes encouraging children to not make the same mistakes they did. And let’s not forget that being a parent in today’s world is full of unrealistic pressures. Being able to provide their kids with ample advantages in life can be competitive, shame-inducing, and exhausting. When combined with a parent’s regret about their own childhood, it’s easy to see why some parents project dreams onto their children.

It’s Not Always Done Intentionally

A lot of parents do not realize they are harming their child or even living vicariously through them in the first place. In fact, many believe they are actually acting in their child’s best interests. This is why it is crucial to look beyond your motives and consider the emotions and experiences that might be influencing your parenting decisions.

The Minority

Unfortunately, for some parents, their children can be a source of self-esteem. That is because some children can help them gain acclaim or attention. This behavior pattern is prevalent among people with a narcissistic personality, though not all people who do this have NPD. If you use your child to feel good about yourself, you may be behaving narcissistically.

Signs You May Be Living Vicariously

It can sometimes be difficult to tell if your parenting is supportive or obsessed when it comes to a child’s success. Here are some signs that you might be living vicariously through your child include:

  • Becoming obsessively involved in your child’s activities (helicopter parenting) at the expense of your own well-being or hobbies
  • Forcing a child to do a specific extracurricular or hobby that they don’t want to do
  • Force decisions based upon your life experiences vs what the child is currently going through
  • Seeing your child’s behavior and activities as a reflection of your own worth
  • Ignoring your child’s needs or interests
  • Experiencing intense emotions related to your child’s performance – whether academic, athletic, extra-circular, dating life, etc.
  • Forcing your own hobby or goal biases onto your child
  • Referring to your child’s accomplishments with the plural “we”; “We had a great game” or “We qualified for the finals!”
  • You are more nervous before competitions or important events than your kids are
  • You are also more emotional when they succeed and when they fail

Life is Demanding, Be Careful

We’re expected to do a lot in today’s world. Be careful you aren’t pushing that narrative onto your kids before they are ready. Their development cannot and should not be rushed. They need to be allowed to grow at their own pace. Kids who become victim to the vicarious parent can end up performing below their potential. And even worse, may develop enough anxiety to turn them off from the activity completely.

Remember, you can be extremely intimidating to your kids. The last thing they want it to disappoint you. Just because they haven’t communicated, they are being pushed too hard or in the wrong direction doesn’t mean you aren’t doing it. It’s crucial that you are a positive and supportive parent on the sidelines. No child wants to be associated with the parent that’s yelling and screaming and getting kicked out of the venue.

How Therapy Can Help You Live Your Life

When parents try to get their own needs met by living vicariously through their offspring, it puts tremendous pressure on the child and reverses the proper roles. In this scenario, the child is being pressured to meet their parent’s needs, which is very destructive to proper child development. Family therapy, in particular, can help families manage conflicts stemming from this harmful parenting style by giving children a voice. This fosters effective communication and provides a safe space to discuss alternative parenting strategies.

Parents who feel compelled to live vicariously through a child can also find great relief from individual therapy. A therapist can:

  • Help a parent move past the obstacle of failed childhood ambitions
  • Support the creation of new goals and new dreams
  • Offer insight into parenting style and decision making
  • Help find and treat any issues in regard to identity

CPA Counseling Wants to Help

Life is going to continually throw us obstacles. What matters most is not what comes our way, but how we cope with it. We know you need a toolbox full of skills in order to cope with the challenges that life throws at us. At CPA, we will always encourage parents to explore coping mechanisms that work best for them. However, we also know that a number of those skills come from counseling and different methods of therapy.

Cristina Panaccione and Associates has two locations in the South Hills and one office in Robinson Township. We are currently accepting a limited number of new patients, so check out our videos to learn more about how we can help teach you the skills to help you practice parental self-care.


* This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please contact a medical professional for advice.

Amber Kottner – LPC

Amber Kottner is a Licensed Professional Counselor and earned my Master of Arts degree in counseling from Waynesburg University. She has over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. She enjoys working with families, children, and adults.  Amber strives to make the therapeutic process as easy as possible by creating an open and supportive environment.

Amber enjoys helping others and strives to assist you in your journey.  She believes that each individual is authentic and deserves an approach that best fits them.  Therefore, she enjoys working from eclectic approaches, including an emphasis on cognitive-behavioral techniques, person-centered therapy, and solution-focused goals.

Therapy is a special partnership.  Amber is here to help make an improvement in your life.  You decide what you want to work on, and together, we will work to get you there in the best and most fitting way possible.