Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Living Vicariously through Children with a Twist

Living Vicariously through Children with a Twist

The Bad Seed

In my post of August 31, Self Sacrifice: For the Good of the Kin, I discussed how children act out certain roles in their family of origin in order to try to emotionally stabilize parents who are emotional unstable. Doing so also has the unfortunate side effect of maintaining dysfunctional relationship patterns so that the family operates in predictable but problematic ways (family homeostasis).

The idea that self-defeating or self-destructive behavior is a “gift of love,” as interpersonal theorist Lorna Smith Benjamin puts it, runs counter to the way most people think. That is especially true in the United States, where an individualistic perspective is the norm. Nonetheless, the idea of altruistic self-sacrifice can provide a powerful explanation for otherwise inexplicable behavior.

Today I describe two types of dysfunctional behavior in which children act out things that their parents would secretly like to do themselves but are highly conflicted about. The parents have hidden desires and impulses, but acting on them was not allowed by their own families of origin.

Most people are familiar with the idea that parents experience things vicariously through the lives of their children - and not just “stage mothers” and the like. But what happens when the vicarious thrill that the parent gets from their child goes against the rules that the parents have not only always followed, but overtly endorsed?

In this case, the children get a double message from the parents. They are subtly and covertly encouraged to act in ways that are later condemned by the very parents who were encouraging them in the first place.

Another similar situation in which double messages fly is when the parent suddenly becomes envious of the fact that the kids get to do what the parents did not get to do. “I want my child to have everything that I did not” suddenly morphs into, “Oh my God, I did not get to have that!” In this situation, the parent becomes depressed when their offspring succeed in living up to the parents expectations of them.

The children in such a family do not really have a clue as to why they are getting these reactions. They experience the sudden negative reactions by the parents as betrayals. This whole phenomenon is called a double bind on achievement. The adult child living out his or her parent's dream is in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't position. If they do not achieve, they are criticized, but if they do achieve, they are still criticized or made to feel bad in some other way.

The two roles I am about to describe were first described by Sam Slipp in a book called, Object Relations: a Dynamic Bridge Between Individual and Family Treatment. In the first one, a child acts out a parent’s forbidden ambitions; in the second, the parents covert rage is acted on. The first situation is a model for the genesis of some cases of chronic depression called dysthymia; the second one is a model for the genesis of sociopathy.

1. The savior: In this scenario, a parent has suppressed his or her ambition to excel at some endeavor in order to satisfy cultural mandates, and subtly pressures the child to act out the forbidden ambition. For example, a woman from a traditional culture who has been exposed to female professionals in the United States might secretly wish to become a doctor. She can admit such a wish neither to herself nor anyone else, for fear of being disowned by her traditional relatives who expect her to be nothing more than a wife and mother.

Such a woman might push her son or possibly even a daughter to become a doctor. This child becomes the parent’s savior. Whether the mother’s “stage-mother” behavior initially produces a conflict in the child depends on whether or not that child had a natural inclination to become a doctor. If a child would naturally tend toward being, say, a forest ranger rather than a doctor, a bigger problem is created for the child than would be created if he or she liked Mom's idea. However, even if the child were inclined to be what the parent wants, a conflict will eventually develop as the child gets closer to the goal.

If the child succeeds in getting through medical school, the mother may, as I mentioned, become depressed.

Family invalidation of successful offspring can be quite subtle. Some parents in fact push and push their children towards a specific goal, whether the child wishes to pursue that career or not. However, when the child graduates from professional school, the parents withdraw. Sometimes they do not even come to the graduation, and make an excuse for not coming that is oh-so-obviously lame.

In response, the “successful” children may then get depressed themselves.

The sudden withdrawal of parental support may have come after the child gave up what he or she really wanted to do in order to be what the parent wanted! Is it any wonder the child feels betrayed?

In some cases, the child tries to solve the problem by settling for what appears to be a bizarre compromise. Example: get an MD degree, but keep failing the licensure exam. That way it looks to the parents like their children are doing what the parents originally wanted, but failing at it all on their own.

In some cases, such a person does not even take the licensing test, and offers a variety of lame excuses when asked why. When such a patient comes to psychotherapy, one of the most frequent debates I get into with them is the true meaning of the oft-heard statement, "I did not try to do (such and such) because I was afraid of failure." (This sentiment is also sometimes expressed by people who play other family roles that are not being discussed in this post).

The statement sounds to me like an excuse that is used to cover up a real reason why the person did not do something potentially beneficial. But why do I think this?

Well, first of all, I wonder why these people are just assuming that they are going to fail when they have not even tried. Nobody can do much of anything with a guarantee of success. If we all demanded certitude in succeeding before attempting something new, no one would ever accomplish anything. Second, if someone is afraid of something, that usually means they will go to great lengths to avoid that something. If you are afraid of snakes, you try your best to avoid them.

If you are afraid of failure, that should mean that you should persistently keep trying to accomplish whatever it is until you succeed - in order to avoid the failure which you supposedly fear. So how exactly is not accomplishing something through sheer lack of effort at all a success? I know it is somewhat more discouraging if you fail at something after you have attempted to do it than if you never tried at all, but in both instances, you have failed! And as I said, why would you presume that you were going to continue to fail?

Unless they are trying to do something that is clearly totally beyond their physical capacity or talent, most people can succeed at a great many things. A given person may have to work harder that the average Joe to achieve one or another particular goal, but if he or she were truly afraid of failure, they would in fact work as hard as necessary. When people do fail at an initial effort, they can learn from their mistakes and try again. Instead of doing that, some people beat themselves up about the initial failure and give up.

They tell themselves the irrational thought, well known by cognitive therapists, that just because they did not succeed the first time, they are just a miserable excuse for a human being who is bound to fail from that point in time until eternity. If you keep telling yourself that, you will undoubted continue to fail, because you will never make the required effort. I think people who use the fear of failure excuse are really afraid of success. Failure is the end result or net effect of not making any effort to accomplish something.

Yet failure is what these people profess to fear. This sounds like Orwellian doublespeak. Seeking out something that one claims to be afraid of. However, when people say that they fear failure, they are usually not actually lying.

"I am afraid of failure" is not a complete sentence. We have to ask, failure to do what? The failure to accomplish the ostensible task of which they speak? That cannot be the answer to the question for the reasons I've mentioned. The failure that I think they may fear is the failure to keep their family stable. If they really try to succed at the ostensible task of which they speak, they will fail at keeping the family stable, and it is that failure that they fear.

 2. The avenger: The avenger acts out a parent’s forbidden anger and hostility. This often leads the avenger to develop antisocial traits. For example, a father who is angry at his own employer but who was expected by his own Depression-era parents to keep his nose to the grindstone may react with not-so-hidden glee when his son creates havoc for the son's boss at the son’s place of employment. If the son keeps it up, however, father then feels obligated to be critical, for two reasons.

First, he was taught that such flagrant self-expression is wrong in employment contexts. Second, he really does not want to see his son lose his job. The parents may seem to be constantly lecturing their children or in other ways trying to discourage them from anti-social behavior, but the way they go about it actually produces the exact opposite effect.

When parents seem obsessed with their children's negative behavior and repeatedly lecture them about it ad nauseum, while never actually punishing them if they disobey, they are giving them the message that they love to give these lectures!  They would be disappointed if they were deprived of the opportunity to go on doing so. In response, a child will continuously give them that opportuntity by maintaining the bad behavior.

In this scenario, a son may be heard to say something like, "Do I have to listen to this?" concerning the lectures.  A more appropriate comment would seem to be, "I heard you the first time. Stop repeating yourself!" If he really did not want to listen to the rants, all he would have to do is do what he was being told.  What he may actually be asking is, "Do I have to keep listening to this in order to keep you happy?'

It is also possible that the parents give signs to a child of covert approval when he or she acts out in an antisocial way. One patient in therapy continually described the legal troubles and oppositional behavior of her sons, but always seemed to enjoy relating these stories to the therapist. In fact, she almost always had a broad smile on her face as she described the latest horror! When the therapist pointed this out, she claimed that she never smiled like that at home when she lectured the kids.

Maybe so, but that seemed a bit far-fetched. Interestingly, the patient’s own mother frequently regaled the sons with stories about how their mom had gotten into trouble when she was an adolescent. Grandma did this with the patient observing.

In an example from the media, during the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a truck driver named Reginald Denny was dragged from his rig and beaten nearly to death. One of the assailants, Damian Williams, was literally videotaped throwing a brick at Mr. Denny’s head while the victim was lying in the street helplessly. There was absolutely no doubt about what he had done.

During the trial, his mother was interviewed by a local TV station and was seen defending her son! I know it was her son and all, but one can see how Mr. Williams might have thought his mother approved of his violence in general.

Psychoanlysists used to refer to a parents' behaving like this as being due to their "superego lacunae" - holes in the parents' conscience that led them to indirectly validate the behavioral expression of hostile feelings by their children, even while criticizing the children unmercifully for having done what they did.