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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Parents Who Cannot Let Go

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 22nd 2013

Parents Who Cannot Let GoParents Who Cannot Let Go

"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life's
longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you
and though they are with you
yet they belong not to you."

Khalil Gibran

Contrary to the quote above, a recent study, led by Eddie Brummelman of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, that appears online (6/19) in the journal PLOS ONE, shows that for some parents children are an extension of themselves. The way this manifest itself is those parents who desire for their children to fulfill their own unrealized ambitions. The results of the study might help explain the actions of so-called “stage moms” or “sports dads” who push their sometimes-unwilling children to become stars of the stage or gridiron, said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University. "Some parents see their children as extensions of themselves, rather than as separate people with their own hopes and dreams," Bushman said. “These parents may be most likely to want their children to achieve the dreams that they themselves have not achieved.”

Results showed that parents who reflected on their own lost dreams were more likely to want their children to fulfill them, but only if they felt strongly that their child was a part of themselves. In one sense this could be a positive thing for the child in that this type of parent can reflect a lot of pride in their child. On the other hand, it can interfere with the child's development of his own sense of self with his own and separate and desires and goals apart from the parent. A large part of growing up is growing away. As Gibran poetically says above, our children do not belong to us. They belong to themselves and have their own separate destinies to fulfill.

The parent who sees the child as part of himself runs the danger of being like the helicopter parent who cannot let the child learn by exploring the environment by himself. Erik Erikson points this out in his eight stages of psychosocial development. Essentially, he points out that the child, in going through the eight stages, is acquiring psychosocial skills necessary to build self confidence and a strong sense of autonomy or separateness from parents. All of this builds a strong sense of personality. The down side of the eight stages of development is when there are forces that interfere with the unfolding of a complete personality. A child who must become an extension of their parent is not able to develop this sense of skill and self confidence, especially if they are not able to fulfill the dreams of the parent.

For example, I have seen fathers who manage little league baseball teams on which their children play. In more than one circumstance, I have witnessed some of these fathers yelling at the team members for not performing well enough to win the game.

The fact is that not all children are able to develop the skill level insisted upon by the parent. In addition, not every child wants to fulfill the dreams of a parent. Being forced to do so leads to deep resentment and alienation. Many children have their own, separate dreams from those of their mother or father. One example I know of is a teenager whose father wants him to be a medical doctor as he himself is. However, the son is solely interested in music. He is a talented musician who has won scholarships to some of the top music programs run by some of the finest universities around the nation. Thankfully, this father is allowing his son to follow his own dreams by recognizing and encouraging the prodigious talent he sees in his son.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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