Parental Projection: The Perils of Living Through our Children

We all project now and again. We may dislike an acquaintance because they remind us a little too much of ourselves or insist that our partner needs to do something exactly how we would do it.

However, many people are guilty of projecting their emotions and expectations onto their children, which can lead to many potentially negative consequences. 

What Is Projection?

Projection was first conceptualized by Sigmund Freud, who theorized that thoughts, motivations, and desires that could not be accepted as one’s own were then attributed to someone else. This projection is not random; instead, people may pick up on an element or personality trait in another person and exaggerate it. 

Examples of projection include:

  • Bullying – Bullies may project their feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability onto other people and then belittle and berate them for it. 
  • Victim blaming – People who feel weak may blame victims of other people’s actions and project their own weakness onto the innocent person. 
  • Guilt – People can project their guilt onto others. For example, a person who cheats on their spouse may project their actions and feelings onto their spouse and accuse them of cheating instead. 

Projection can also be inadvertent. For instance, children look to their parents for guidance, and seeing a frequently anxious parent can lead the child to become more anxious in everyday scenarios. Stress management is key to avoiding this form ofprojection.

Why do we Project?

At its core, projection is a defense mechanism. We project our feelings and issues onto others to deal with unexpressed fears or emotions, which is particularly true when it comes to projecting onto children. The fears and anxieties that people carry from their childhoods get put on their children because parents do not want their children to deal with the same issues. 

Projection is a highly unhealthy way to deal with these emotions, however, and can have many negative repercussions for both children and parents. 

Parental Projection

It is not uncommon to see parents projecting their feelings onto their children. In some cases, parents may allege that their child is wrong or deficient in some way, despite no evidence to confirm this. Parents then try to right this perceived wrong, which can have unintended consequences for both parents and children. 

For example, one parent may have grown up and failed to reach their goals. They may then tell their child that the world is unfair and that they should not have high hopes for the future or else they will be disappointed. Due to this projection, the child then grows up with the same mindset and continues the cycle. 

Projection can also entail excessive pressure to excel in ways the parent never did. The parent may push their child to achieve more and more and to set lofty goals for themselves that the parent never reached. Parents will do anything they can in these cases to help their child achieve these goals. This can have negative consequences, because the child either learns to expect their parents to help with any goal they have or endures great stress trying  to achieve the unrealistic goals set for them.

When parents project their own dreams and emotions onto their children, they fail to see their kids as the individuals they are. This projection can also miss the mark entirely, as parents cater to the needs that they think their children have rather than the needs they actually have.

Living Vicariously 

Another aspect of parental projection can be living vicariously through one’s children. This means that parents push their children to achieve goals or chase dreams they had but could not achieve when they were young. For example, an injury may have prevented one parent from competing in sports professionally, so they push their child to compete instead.

Parents naturally want their children to succeed. However, parents often push their children to succeed in things they  want the kids to do rather than in areas the children prefer. 

Can Projection Be Positive?

In some cases, projection can have a positive influence on a child. If a parent is ambitious and driven in a healthy manner, they can project these qualities onto their child, amplifying their confidence and helping them succeed in life.

However, this is a fine line to walk. In many cases, children may feel inadequate if they do not live up to their parents’ expectations or examples. 

How to Stop Projecting 

As a parent, you may be worried about projecting your hopes and fears onto your child. If you were raised to be anxious, your worst fear may be raising an anxious child. However, there are ways to combat this unhealthy projection and instead be a positive role model for your child: 

  • Practice mindfulness – Mindfulness helps people get in touch with how they think and feel. If you find yourself projecting onto your children, sit down for a mindful moment and ask yourself why you feel this way. 
  • Communicate – If your child asks why they have to do something or why they can’t do something, openly communicate with them. Explain that you ask them to do things to keep them safe or because they have to follow the rules. This may make you realize that some of the things that you ask them to do are for you rather than for them.
  • Listen – Half of communication is listening. If your child tells you that they do not want to do a hobby or sport, listen to them and do not dismiss their feelings. They may need a break or want to find a new hobby.
  • Talk to a therapist – Identifying and changing patterns of projection is not an easy feat. Talk to a therapist if you are worried about how this may be affecting your child.  A trained professional can  offer insight into this behavior and provide tools to prevent it from happening in the future.

It is natural to worry about your children and have anxieties or worries about them. You want the best for them and do not want them to be burdened with the same issues you faced as a child. However, these thoughts and worries are your own, and you can protect your children from your own fears and concerns if you work on limiting your projection.


Projection is a defense mechanism that everyone has used at some point in their lives. However, it can have a massive impact on children if it forces them to participate in hobbies they’re ill-suited for or to develop unhealthy thought patterns. 

Therapy can help with parental projection. Identifying and directly addressing the issues that you struggled with as a child can help prevent you from passing them on to your children. 

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