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5 Things We Most Project Onto Our Kids

When we stop our projections, kids thrive in their own unique way.

Key points

  • Parents often project their own past pain onto their children and try to control situations their children face to avoid their own emotions.
  • Areas where parents may project onto children relate to competing, doing well at school, looking good, fitting in and being "good."
  • Most projections are unconscious, but parents can become aware of them to create boundaries and allow children their own growth opportunities.

Last Saturday, my son participated in his first-ever Spartan race. A Spartan race usually involves a run and then getting over a series of obstacles such as climbing over walls, ascending a rope, pulling heavy weights, crawling in the mud, etc. It is not easy.

He is a strong and fit 8-year-old kid and had strong views of coming first in the race. He used many of the tools he’s heard us mention at home; visualizing himself finishing, breathing in the right way to have energy, focusing on having fun and trusting his body. He didn’t seem to be worried at all.

Still, I was surprised what all this brought up for me as a parent. I found myself getting nervous for him, noticing my own anxiety in case he didn’t finish, or lost, or had his friends beat him, or worse, he got injured… every scenario went through my head. I could even feel what disappointment would be like for him. By contrast, my husband was not worried at all and said that even if he came last he would learn some valuable lessons.

I then realized that all of this was my own projection of how this would or has felt to me in the past. Projection is the process of displacing one’s feelings onto another. Well, I used to be a competitive swimmer, and have won and lost races on a few hundredths of a second. I’ve been disqualified, I’ve lost to friends and teammates, I haven’t made the trials, and I’ve also come first, won many medals and beaten records. So I really do have a memory of both the glory and the defeat and all the hard work and training in between.

The night before my son's race, I saw very clearly that as a parent, anything that is unhealed or at least very familiar within me is going to be projected onto my child. If I haven’t dealt with it, I am going to fear my child dealing with it too.

Common Ways Parents Project Onto Kids

There are five main areas in which I feel many of us project unhealed wounds onto our children. I am sure you have your own too.

  1. Competing and sports: As kids, we all have memories of winning and losing, how that felt, if we disappointed our parents and if they were there for us at the time to help us process our own emotions.
  2. Fitting in: Many of us had a hard time fitting into a new school, a new group of friends and felt alone or as if something was wrong with us.
  3. Looking good: We all wanted to look a certain way, either to make friends, get a girlfriend or boyfriend or simply to be popular. Many of us were made to feel not good enough.
  4. Doing well at school: Often, our parents pushed this as the most important requirement to unconsciously get their love and approval. When we did well on a test and did our homework, mom or dad was happy.
  5. Being a good boy/girl: Behavior was something that was rewarded or punished for most of us. So when our own child doesn’t behave, or does something we were punished for, we will project our past onto them and the consequences we suffered.

Which one do you fear the most for your own child? This is usually what you try and control, or in other words, try and help them with, to avoid your own feelings that get stirred up.

It should come as no surprise that if we haven’t got our own closure and completion on these issues, we might be unaware that we are projecting these onto our own children.

And yet, we are not being present with what is there for our kids in their unique moment. We are bringing our own baggage to the conversation and that requires us to do some inner work.

Tips for Dealing with Projection

Here are some suggestions I tried to clear myself from my own projections before his big Spartan race.

  • Become aware: I have a coach who says that awareness is 50 percent of the answer every time. The more aware we can be of our own projections onto our kids, the more we will allow them their own lessons and be able to focus on healing the past for ourselves. I made my own list of what I project onto my son so that I can catch myself when it comes up.
  • Separate the situations: Yes, this felt familiar to me, which is why it got my attention, but it was in reality a completely different situation for my son. He wasn’t nervous. Adding my pressure to him getting ready for his race had no benefit. Instead, I let him prepare the way he wanted, I didn’t give him any advice, other than to have fun and be considerate of others.
  • Create a boundary: I made sure my own feelings were not being transferred to him, which he would have picked up on. If I was feeling shaky, I went to my room, meditated, journaled, took a shower, anything to change my state so my son could be totally free to have his own experience.
  • Allow children their own growth opportunities: This one is harder said than done, since no parent wants to see his or her child suffer. And yet, our children learn more from losing and mistakes than always being a "good boy" or "good girl" and making us happy and proud. They find their own resilience, their own inner tools. They don’t have to be rescued by a parent and they get to learn first-hand that they really can handle it all.

Projections = pain. The antidote is always self-awareness and healing, and seeing your children not as an extension of yourself and your own past, but as unique human beings, having their own experience.