Narcissistic parents see kids as a second chance to fulfill their own dreams.
Parenting, alas, can be a tempting realm for dream-fulfillment through a next generation. All parents do that to some extent. Our children's opportunities and successes give us appropriate feelings of joy. At the same time, parents can easily fall into the trap of pushing their child to fulfill the dreams that they themselves were unable to realize. That trap can undermine the child, frustrate the parent, and even lead to marriage problems when couples disagree about whose dreams for their chlld should be encouraged and how.
Tim, the Athlete
When he had been young, Paul easily rose to the top of the world of junior tennis by winning many junior tennis tournaments. Throughout his high school years he ranked at the top not only in his city but in the country. What was the price?
"My dad had been a strong player himself when he was younger, but never made it into the pros. I'm afraid that making it as a tennis star therefore became my job.
"When I was playing tournaments and beating kids lots older than me, I enjoyed playing because I was good at the game. Increasingly though as I got older, as much as I loved traveling to tournaments and being treated as special, I often just wanted to be a kid. I wanted to go ride my bike with friends from school, but my dad insisted I practice five hours a day on the court. By high school my dream was to get to go to the mall and hang out like my friends at school did. But my dad wouldn't let me miss my workouts. Finally, when I was 18, instead of turning pro I secretly applied to college. I won a tennis scholarship and left home forever. Now, after college, I have 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. "
Jeff the Scholar
Jeff was very bright. School was easy for him. Before he began high school though his Dad said, "Jeff, you can stay in the public high school only if you get all A's. I expect you to go to an Ivy League college. The world is hard. That's the only way you will be successful in life."
High school proved a nightmare for Jeff. Instead of studying because he was interested, Jeff felt continual pressure for all A's. He might have earned mostly A's in any case, but the terror of disappointing his father if he "failed" by getting anything but A's kept him feeling constantly pressured. To be sure he succeeded, he overworked. If the assignment was to write a five page paper, he wrote ten. He read all the homework reading, often twice.
When college application time rolled around, Paul thought only of where his father wanted him to go. Those were the schools he applied to. He then spent most of his senior year in a state of worry that he would not be accepted.
Jeff's fears proved well-founded. When the letter college acceptance letters finally arrived, they all were rejections. After all his work and worry, he still was turned down.
Jeff's father pulled strings. Eventually Jeff received the nod to attend one of the smaller-college Ivies. However much he studied there, again it never felt enough. It seemed increasingly impossible that his dad would ever love him. Worse, Jeff gradually realized that the college was a poor fit for him. He didn't enjoy the kids there, the pseudo-intellectual atmosphere, the weather, the faculty. He was there just for his dad, and the deal had been at his expense.
The Therapist's View
When Paul and Jeff had back to back therapy sessions with me last week, I was struck at the similarities in their growing up experiences. In both cases, the dads had seen themselves as failures. When their sons came along, both dads defined their job as putting pressure on their son to accomplish the dreams they themselves had failed to fulfill in their own lives.
Unfortunately, the dads' dreams were not always the dreams of their sons. Dad's dreams in fact drowned out their son's abilities to see or hear their own desires. By harnessing their son's lives to fulfillment of their own frustrated dreams, both Dads were actually crippling their son's abilities to enjoy their genuine blessings like athletic ability and school smarts. Instead the sons' anxieties about having to conform to what dad wanted or to please a never-satisfied dad dominated their lives.
What is it about narcissism that invites this kind of overbearing parenting mode?
My personal theory is that narcissism is the next station down the track from, on the extreme end, autism, and at the next stop, Aspergers. Like autistic and Aspergers' individuals, narcissistic individuals are very focused on what goes on in their own head, and have minimal ability to hear that the other person has his own thoughts, feelings and preferences. If the other, in this case, their sons, tries to verbalize what they themselves want or feel, dad just gets mad. He hears them as interfering with his plan rather than as legitimate expressions of a separate individual.
Narcissists are confusing. They often make excellent sales people because they can figure out what others' want. They use these understandings though to manipulate others rather than to be genuinely responsive to the other's concerns. The narcissist's goal is to get others to do what he wants them to do. Others are there for his benefit, not to live their own lives.
The sad reality is that Paul might have become a top international tennis star had he had a father who pressured him less. As it was, the pressure to constantly practice burned out his motivation to play, converting his love of the game to resentment toward his dad.
Jeff's experience followed a similar trajectory. A naturally strong student, Jeff would have been likely to be a fine student had he allowed him self, or had a dad who allowed him, to confidently enjoy his abilities, and to allow himself to develop friends and additional interests. With so much pressure from dad, he carried above him a constant cloud of anxiety.
The narcissistic dads' pressure had created the opposite of what they wanted. Narcissists hope to become, or else want their sons to become, superstars. The excessive pressure dims instead of heightening the stars' potential. Alas.
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.