Vicarious vs. Supportive Parents: Do You Live Through or With Your Child?

Your child is having a great season as the post-season approaches. She is worried. She asks you the question, “What if I lose?”

What is your response?

Parents SidelineA vicarious parent would reply along the lines of, “That’s not going to happen, you’re so good” or “You shouldn’t think that way.” If you’re a parent who responds this way, you’re likely living directly through your child’s success or failure. You still mean well and love your kid, but you’ve just become too emotionally invested in the results.

These types of parents, unfortunately, lack the perspective to make rational decisions. They live and die with every play and every game. Their child is the best when he or she wins, and they are the worst when they lose. All or nothing.

  • Vicarious parents are as close as possible physically to every practice as they can attend.
  • Vicarious parents often blame others when the important outcomes do not go well.
  • Vicarious parents are the ones comparing their son or daughter to others.
  • Vicarious parents stress out quickly and easily.
  • Vicarious parents are usually the ones at the games shouting instructions.
  • Vicarious parents feel their child’s success is a reflection of themselves.
  • Vicarious parents don’t realize they are living through their child. 

A supportive parent, on the other hand, answers the “What if I lose?” question a different way. They approach along the lines of, “Why do you think that?” or “Let’s walk it through…what if you do lose?” Supportive parents provide an environment that remains safe. They don’t try to solve their kids concerns. They encourage their child to think for themselves, come up with their solutions and handle their outcomes. Home is not a fan base. Athletes can rest assured that in the house, no matter how they perform, their identity is not just as an athlete. They have unconditional love and support. Lastly, these children aren’t nagged about their preparation or whether they are nervous before important performances. 

  • Supportive parents attend from a distance.
  • Supportive parents ensure their son or daughter assumes responsibility, not blaming coaches or situations.
  • Supportive parents stress effort over results.
  • Supportive parents know their son or daughter’s performance is just a shadow of them, not a reflection.
  • Supportive parents make sure they aren’t over the top.
  • Supportive parents are aware of the long-term development.
  • Supportive parents don’t “should” on their kids.

Both types of parents make sacrifices and difficult decisions for their child along the journey. No one questions whether the love and support are there. Unfortunately, these vicarious or supportive labels are not mutually exclusive. We may sometimes be one type of parent with one child and another style with another. It’s possible for the pendulum to swing to both extremes and even for us to live in the middle. This is about progress, not perfection; we are going to make mistakes, but that is the point of this book. How can we help our child build mental toughness? How can we become better, more aware parents in the process?

Dr. Rob Bell is a Sport Psychology Coach. His company DRB & associates is based in Indianapolis. Some clients have included: University of Notre Dame, Marriott, and Walgreens.

Dr. Rob Bell is the co-author of the new book- Don’t Should on Your Kids: Build Their Mental Toughness.

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