When Parents Go Too Far

By Dr. Alan Goldberg

Parents initially get involved in their children's sports with the hopes that they can help their son or daughter have a rewarding and successful life experience. In general, they hope that their child will have fun, learn a ton of valuable athletic and life skills and be successful. Unfortunately, somewhere in this process of "being helpful," parents begin to inadvertently do far more damage than good. They get over-involved with their child's training and performance, they become highly critical after their child's competitive performances fail to meet their own expectations and the unintended end result of this is a devastating empathic failure that does long term damage to the psychological well-being and happiness of their child, not to mention the long term health of the parent-child bond.

In the beginning the fights may seem to simply be about how much time the child is or isn't putting into practicing. Maybe they want to play with their friends too much or maybe they "don't care enough" about "getting good." Very soon the parent feels he/she has to coach and critique the child after each practice session or else the child will miss out on important learnings. After all, you certainly don't want to "waste" invaluable practice time goofing around or executing poorly. Rides home from practice soon become a "one way street" kind of conversation with the parent "helpfully" pointing out all the things that the child did wrong that day in practice.

These rides to and from practice or games may quickly deteriorate into arguments as the child feels attacked and unfairly criticized. Parents often pull out the guilt card here, explaining that they're only trying to "be helpful." Often parents will show their visible displeasure with their child's poor outing by angrily withdrawing. The child, realizing that mom or dad is unhappy with them and has withdrawn their love, often times is left feeling panicked. Very quickly the fun leaves the sport and is replaced by intense, all-consuming feelings of unhappiness and dread.

At this point mom and dad have totally and completely lost their perspective. They have made the sport, an insignificant-in-the-long-run children's game, far more important than the psychological well-being and happiness of their child. They have totally lost sight of the impact of their behavior on their child's feelings of love and security in relation to them. They speak to their child in the "language of the sport," i.e. proper mechanics, timing, strategy, commitment, hard work, etc. and their child doesn't hear a word that they're saying. Why isn't the child listening? Because the child is experiencing that their emotional survival is at stake. Mom and dad are angry and upset and have withdrawn their love and approval. The resultant anxiety trumps everything else!

When you interact with your son or daughter about their back handspring on beam, the fact that they seem scared every time that they step up to the plate, that they never take the open shot, fall apart on the back 9 in those big tournaments or can't throw the ball back to the pitcher PLEASE REMEMBER, what's at stake here has little to do with the sport and EVERYTHING TO DO WITH THEIR HAPPINESS AND FEELINGS OF BEING LOVED.

If you make your child perform for your love and approval, then you will be severely damaging both your child and, in the long term, your relationship with them. This is not and should NEVER be about the sport. This is about you, your child and your relationship with them. It should be very simply about LOVE!!!! Your love for your child and their love for you. If you are oblivious to this fact, if you allow yourself to get blinded by the glitter of "winning" or "being the best," then you will be inviting a lot of tears, unhappiness and serious psychological problems into your home.

Dr. Alan Goldberg is a nationally-known expert in the field of applied sport psychology, Dr. Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic caliber right down to junior competitors. He is the author of 25 mental toughness training programs and Director of Competitive Advantage. His website is


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