What your child needs most from you is for you to not need your child.
I first heard this from my friend and colleague, Dr. Paul VanValin, a clinical psychologist.
“What?” you may ask. As I originally did.
“Of course I need my child. I love my child!”- you may say.
Our children need us to be there for them- physically, mentally, and emotionally. Not the other way around. They need us- they don’t want us to need them. If we need them they live a life so consumed with our needs, that they forget that they have any of their own. And this has potential life-long consequences.
As effective parents we need to try to meet the needs of our children. This includes their need for structure, their need for positive discipline, their need for love and acceptance, their need for safety, their need for emotional warmth, their need for age appropriate independence and more. Big job- I know.
Too often even the most well-meaning parents get it confused and try to use their children to meet their own unmet needs. They may go to their children for emotional support, burden them with adult concerns, or rely on them for the reassurance and acceptance that they did not receive during their own childhood.
Many times parents unknowingly use their children to esteem their own ego. The better their child performs the better the parent feels about themselves. They may put extreme pressure on their children to carry out the hopes and dreams that they themselves wish that they had fulfilled.
They may convince themselves that they are looking out for their child’s best interest, when in reality they are trying to live vicariously through their child.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a very natural and good thing to be excited when your child does well. It is important to teach children to do their best, help them cultivate good study habits, and encourage them to get involved in a variety of activities. These are great things. This is not what I am talking about here.
I am talking about children who are pushed to such a degree that their mental, emotional, or physical health begins to nosedive. I am also referring to children who are forced to participate in passions that belong to the adult, not the child.
Sixteen-year-old, Veronica came to see me at the request of her physician. She was suffering from back pain, migraine headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome. Although she was being treated by her medical doctor, her physician told her that she needed to get some counseling to get her stress under control.
Her physical problems were becoming debilitating and her grades were suffering as a result. Veronica reported that she was so miserable with her life that she really didn’t want to go on living.
She told me that she was going to a special academy and all of the other kids were really smart. She said that she was taking all advanced classes and having trouble staying afloat. Veronica informed me that she was on a year-round swim team that required her to practice everyday. She teared up as she told me that she had never really wanted to pursue swimming, but she did not want to disappoint her parents.
On top of her heavy academic schedule and her daily swimming, she was the president of her class at school and extremely involved in several other activities. I wondered when she found time to sleep at all. I would be sick, too. I thought.
Veronica told me about her parents dream- their dream for her to attend Harvard. She sobbed and told me that she just couldn’t let them down. No other school would be good enough.
After working with Veronica and her parents for several months, her stress began to decrease as well as her physical symptoms. Veronica made huge changes in her life with the support of her parents. Her parents no longer needed her to swim on the swim team or attend Harvard Medical School. They didn’t need anything at all from Veronica. They just wanted their daughter to be happy and healthy.
They had not been aware of what the pressure was doing to their daughter. They had convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing by helping her to succeed. I informed her parents that Veronica was a hard-working girl and that she would be successful in life, as long as some pressure was removed and she regained her health.
Veronica still slips back once in a while and confuses her worth with her level of achievement. But she has made great progress. And that is one of the things that Veronica is learning. She is learning to let go of perfection and focus on progress.
Carl Jung once said, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
I suppose Jung has a great point. As parents, we need to step back and look at what our children need rather than what we need from them. We may need to dig deep- really deep and ask ourselves, “Who is this really for, me or my child?”
*To protect confidentiality, the name and certain identifying information in this post has been changed. Veronica is a fictional character who represents many young girls who come into therapy.