Parental Anxiety Over Kids' Perceived Failures (Part 1)
Dr. Lynn Margolies
One of the most common and difficult challenges for parents is how to contain our reactions, and not make things worse, when children don’t do well or fail to measure up to our expectations. It’s a normal protective instinct to feel pain on children’s behalf, and want to shield them from failure and disappointment.
Difficult Match Between Some Parents and Children
But sometimes when kids don’t succeed fully, it reverberates with parents’ own dread of failure, leading to personalized reactions, or over-reactions, and a cascade of negative cycles between parents and children. Certain types of families with children who are not high achievers, or who have impediments getting in the way, have a harder time dealing with this issue in their kids and are more vulnerable. These families include: 1) high achieving parents whose children are inherently less driven with different personalities than theirs; and 2) parents with histories of disadvantage and/or present-day unhappiness who 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 essential problem is that the boundary becomes obscured between the parent’s identity and the child’s. When this happens, parents lose perspective, elevate the stakes, and become personally reactive, obstructing their ability to see and work with their children’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, creating an internal pressure to make children do well while, at the same time, evoking guilt and shame over being disappointed and hard on them.
Two general patterns may develop: 1) over protectiveness laced with criticism - driven by disappointment and anxiety, and 2) overindulgence and failure to set limits - driven by disappointment and guilt (part 2 of this column).
Making the Stakes Too High
The first pattern, seen in Noah, manifests in lecturing, pressure and explosive control struggles. Unbeknownst to Noah, his emotional reactions mirrored Max’s, fueling a negative cycle between them. Every challenge of Max’s became a high stakes test foreshadowing whether Max would make it in life, and whether Noah had failed as a parent. An underlying part of Noah that was insecure and feared failure was played out through his son, leaving Noah powerless. And Noah’s vigilance to Max’s struggles, and excessive worry about his future, intensified Max’s lack of confidence in himself and shame.
Contagion of Parents’ Fears
Parents’ anxiety about their children not doing well unconsciously communicates to children a lack of faith that they will be okay. Also, when we’re anxious and frustrated, children become more overwhelmed and unable to use higher mind (executive) functions. In the process, we miss the opportunity to help them develop resilience, which includes the capacity to manage frustration, hold themselves up, persevere and recover in the face of disappointment. Children develop and download these capacities from us through cumulative experiences in which we lend them our capacities by maintaining calm, equilibrium and perspective when they are upset.
Parents Reorienting Themselves
Noah’s reactions overpowered and blinded him to his son’s feelings and personality, and the differences between them. Noticing and accepting differences between ourselves and our children can re-orient us, allowing us to see them more clearly and maintain flexible expectations of them. Also, holding onto faith and perspective and staying aware of children’s feelings during difficult moments builds their fortitude and trust that we can help, and actually helps them become more successful.
Tips for Parents:
• Notice similarities and differences between you and your child and adjust expectations• Keep your vision of your child flexible • Recognize when you are reactive and settle yourself • Recognize that feelings are not facts• Hold onto faith in your child• Don’t impose anxiety, worry and pressure• Limit “lessons” and focus on stabilizing the emotional climate• Allow space when children are upset• Lower the stakes: develop and offer perspective • Be present: don’t catastrophize• Consider outside coaches and tutors
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.