Here is a story which is not unique in the world of counseling and teenage sports. The parents of a high school athlete make an appointment for their teen to see a counselor. During the session, they explain that their athlete is on the verge of making the varsity team as a sophomore. They respond with, "Our child has the skills. Our future super star is experiencing some performance anxiety that is affecting his playing status — do you think you can help our child?" After the counselor meets first with the parents to assess the situation, he requests that the parents bring their child in for a visit.
The teenager meets with the counselor and after spending a session together, several observations are made by the counselor:
- These parents have a really nice child.
- The child's insights about the family dynamics far surpass those of the parents.
- The teenager demonstrates no signs of performance anxiety, but rather is angry at his parents for dragging him into counseling and dramatizing the importance of sports.
- He enjoys playing sports, but they are a preference, not a necessity in his life.
- The student athlete wishes his parents would back off with all their intensity over athletic performance.
The counselor asks the teenager if he would be willing to let the counselor share some of the child's observations with his parents. The teen gladly consents to the sharing of information with the parents.
The parents meet with the counselor and are mystified by the counselor's reiteration of their child's thoughts and feelings. They feel that the counselor has been remiss in not focusing on what they perceive as the presenting problem — the performance anxiety issue. The parents leave the session with frustration and fail to make a follow-up appointment for their child.
Often, parents live vicariously through their children, usually without being aware that they are doing it. They over-function, or are overprotective, and view their children as an extension of themselves. Parents, who have the financial means, may take the extra step of hiring personalized athletic trainers, send their kids to endless sports camps, and hire sports psychologists hoping to give their child the needed edge to gain sports notoriety. Invariably, the motivation for these added performance enhancers comes from the parents, not the child.
Sports, however, are not the only time when parents are overprotective. There are other ways that a parent may overprotect their teenagers. In the following case, parents shielded their children from the logical consequences of their behavior. I recall reading about a substance abuse treatment program implemented by a prestigious high-school in suburban Chicago. A significant number of students were chronically self-medicating with marijuana and other illicit drugs. The school was attempting to hold their students accountable in the face of intense parental pressure. Parents of the students' who were violating the law and school policies, proceeded to the school accompanied by their attorneys in an attempt to overturn any consequences established by the school or police. They also wanted any school records expunged which sited their child's violations. According to the article, many of the baby-boomer parents dismissed the school efforts to deal with the drug problem, took action against the school and police, and admitted to being users themselves.
Parents have other ways of protecting their children's behavior. Once, I conducted a presentation for a middle school PTO. The topic was the downside of pop culture. In the presentation I was exploring the connection between violent video games and the perpetuation of violence and aggression within our society. I felt that several parents in the audience believed that I was being overly dramatic about this issue. One woman exclaimed, "I can't control my child's electronic gadgetry because there is too much peer pressure. It's so acceptable that it's too hard to monitor." No one said it was easy to set limit for children, but it is necessary. My contention that kids are hard-wired in such a way that they have trouble differentiating fantasy from reality fell on deaf ears. These defensive parents could not recognize that they were validating unhealthy behavior by protecting those behaviors.
Frequently, parents act as accomplices through overprotective parenting. They vicariously live through their children in ways that put excessive pressure on them. They also excuse away their children's behavior in an attempt to rescue them from the consequences of their behavior. Failing to differentiate children's feelings from their own is overprotecting. Enabling destructive behaviors by allowing them is overprotecting. The process of appropriate parenting can only be successfully navigated if parents choose to role-model mature/adult behavior, hold their children accountable for mistakes, and refuse to let their children off the hook when they display improper behavior.
James P. Krehbiel is a licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at (480) 664-6665 or krehbielcounseling.com.