Home » 3 Ways We Can Fall Victim to Parental Projection

3 Ways We Can Fall Victim to Parental Projection

by Kate Wight

In psychology, there’s a term called projection wherein people take their own negative qualities and displace them onto other people. For example, someone who struggles with anger management might accuse a family member of being hostile. Projecting in that manner is called neurotic projection.   

But converse to that, there is a lesser-known phenomenon called complementary projection. In complementary projection, a person assumes that their own positive qualities can be easily replicated by others. For example, someone who is a great cook might assume that other people can cook with equal ease. 

Complementary projection has also been used to describe the phenomenon of people assuming that other people share their feelings or opinions. If you’ve ever had a stranger casually make a racist comment to you about someone else, it’s likely because they assume everyone shares their thought process. 

But complementary projection isn’t limited to interactions with strangers. In fact, many parents can be guilty of imposing their own goals or dreams on their children, often without realizing what they’re doing. Even if it’s not done with malice, complementary projection can put a lot of undue stress on children and can damage the bond between parent and child. Here, we talk about some common ways parents project onto their children, and how you can break the pattern.

Living Vicariously Through Your Children

Sometimes, in our own childhoods, we aren’t able to accomplish something we really wanted to. This happens for any number of reasons. Maybe your parents didn’t have the financial means to sign you up for beauty pageants. Maybe you wanted to be a star athlete but were derailed by an injury. Whatever the reason, that hurt stays with you. 

When you have children, you want to give them the world. But be sure that the world you’re giving them is one they actually want to receive. Pressuring your children into pursuing goals that you missed out on doesn’t make up for your own sense of loss or disappointment. Instead, you may be keeping them from pursuing an activity that matters to them, thus perpetuating your own childhood angst once more. 

Pushing Talented Kids Too Hard

Everyone is born with some kind of innate talent. Some people are academically gifted, some are athletic, and some are artistically talented. While it’s natural to want to help your kids be successful by nurturing their gifts, it’s important to ensure that they actually want to diligently pursue perfection. 

Many parents worry about their kids squandering their potential and missing out on opportunities. They end up pushing their kids to practice incessantly or perform perfectly on every test and essay. Oftentimes, this makes their children develop a sense of resentment towards both their parents and the activity they’re being forced to devote themselves to. Encouragement is a great quality in a parent: pushing kids until they lose all sense of joy in an area is not. 

Don’t Get Caught Up in Gender Expectations

While society has come a long way in certain respects, we still have a long road to walk.No matter how progressive we are, it’s easy to buy into certain gender expectations, especially when we ourselves were brought up steeped in them. Do you ever find yourself telling your daughter that she’s being unladylike? Do you discourage her from pursuing male-dominated careers because you’re worried she’ll have a difficult time? It’s important to examine these impulses.  

On the flip side, you also don’t want to overcorrect. If you grew up in a household where you were expected to be a homemaker, you might be horrified if your daughter does have that aspiration. When you had to fight for the freedom to have a career and make your own choices, it can feel like an insult when your daughter doesn’t share your priorities. While it’s good to encourage her to make sure she has her own source of income and independence, you shouldn’t shame her for making a different choice. 

Breaking the Cycle

Many women have chafed against gender expectations their whole lives. For a personal example, my mom hated my taste in clothing growing up. As a child, I was a tomboy who preferred shorts and my Ghostbusters t-shirt to the pink frilly clothes my mom adored. As a teenager during the mid-nineties, I unabashedly embraced grunge style over the preppy clothes that my mom preferred me to wear. Our different tastes in styles led to many conflicts over the years, and I swore that I would never impose my own taste on any future daughter I might have. 

When I did have a daughter years later, I was really excited. I was going to be the cool mom who let her be as edgy as she wanted! Only it turns out that my daughter loved all things pink and purple and glittery. Even as a toddler she had very specific taste in clothing and would take off clothes that she found offensive. To my surprise, I took it very personally at first. To have her be drawn to the same aesthetic I eschewed brought up a lot of that childhood angst again. Fortunately, I got a handle on it pretty quickly. But it gave me a much deeper understanding of how easy it is for parents to project their own issues onto their kids.

At the end of the day, we all want to do what’s best for our children. But it’s important to take a moment and check your motivations. Our kids are not little carbon copies of us, and they have their own hopes and dreams. Make sure you’re encouraging them, and not replacing their own wants with your own.

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