The Super Agent Parent – Could YOU Be at Risk?

Over the last few years there’s been a lot written about the overly close parenting style that’s become increasingly common. You probably know the type – the moms and dads who habitually over manage and overprotect their kids to the point of being ridiculous – and potentially damaging.

One particular strain of this “disease” shows up in the parent who becomes, what I call, a “Super Agent.” There is a dark side to this style and it’s best to make sure you don’t catch it.

The motives of the Super Agent are initially no different from anyone else’s. After all, parents have wanted the best for their children since the beginning of time. Nothing wrong with that. But bad things happen when this normal human desire for their children’s happiness turns into an unquenchable, obsessive urge to create the perfect child — the one who does it all and does it all exceptionally well. And if the child can’t, the parent will.

We’ve all seen it: the dad screaming at the coach on the sidelines of the soccer field, the mother bragging about her daughter’s (parent-assisted) college essay, the surprising museum level quality of the 4th grader’s diorama. Who can blame them, right? Who doesn’t want their child to be everything he or she can be—the straight-A student, the captain of the football team, the first one invited to the prom? But, when the parent’s role changes from loving supporter to crazed super agent, it gets ugly and damage is done.

Just ask Corey Gahan, the one-time world-class rollerblader whose dad started shooting him up with steroids and human growth hormone when he was only 12. Although Corey was one of the best skaters in the world his father wanted more. So Jim Gahan moved his son from Michigan to Florida to train year-round with a famous coach and had Corey home-schooled so that practice time would not compete with school hours. Eventually, Corey became quite ill and blood tests revealed that he had 20 times the normal testosterone levels of a grown man in his system. His dad had been shooting him up for years in order to make him “more competitive.” Corey was banned from competing in his sport for two years after testing positive for illegal drugs. And his dad was convicted of providing steroids to his son and sent to prison.

Super Agent Parents work hard to give their child the edge from the start. At birth their children’s names are placed on the waiting lists of the best pre-schools in town. Baby Einstein tapes and other forms of “edutainment” follow soon after and from there on out the child is thrown into a dizzying array of activities like gymnastics, piano, soccer, flute, T-Ball and Japanese. Although one or two of these can be fun for a child, when the schedule is packed with five or six every week, the child suffers. Pediatricians and pre-school teachers alike are full of tales of exhausted, over-scheduled children who don’t know how to deal with unstructured play time and who are not developing the abilities to wonder and imagine.

As their kids approach elementary school and beyond, Super Agent Parents focus intensely on their child’s popularity or success in the classroom, on the stage, or on the field. And when their child does not make the team, get the lead role, ace the test or get invited to the party, the parents take it personally. They angrily confront the teacher about the grade or complain to other parents about the missing invitation or retaliate by having another party and excluding the kid who snubbed their child.

A few years ago, a story in the Baltimore Sun reported that teachers are leaving the field in droves because of parents who threaten and bully them over their children’s grades. Parental harassment got so bad in one school district that they were forced to implement a “civility policy” aimed at getting these over-demanding, rude parents to back off.

Unfortunately, when parents take over like this children do not learn how to deal with the consequences of not studying hard enough, or how to accept the fact that no one gets to be great at everything, or how to step back and let others shine, or how to deal with hurt feelings and move on from there. They do not get the opportunity to learn how to take responsibility for their actions and may walk away with the notion that mom or dad will always be there to clean up their mess or solve their problem.

The child also gets the loud but unspoken message that no matter how hard they may have tried, in the case of a low grade or small part or a cut from the team, it just wasn’t good enough. For a kid whose identity is still forming that often translates into “he or she” isn’t good enough. The child may begin to believe that in the absence of non-stop stellar grades or soaring popularity that he is sub-standard, disappointing and unworthy of his parent’s love.

For parents, the opportunity to teach their children the importance of trying their best and taking pride in the effort is lost. These experiences, although painful, can help kids learn what it means to be a friend, a neighbor, or a citizen and give parents the perfect chance to talk about perseverance, loyalty, being a “class-act,” the dangers of gossip and cliques, and how to get up and go on when things go wrong.

Since growing up does not happen in a straight line, kids are bound to make lots of wrong turns along the way. Mistakes, bad choices, getting caught and being in trouble are all a normal part of growing up. They are usually relatively harmless if someone is there to catch you and then give you the lecture, the sympathy, or the punishment. But if you never get the chance to make a mistake or step out of line, or if no one takes the time to call you out when you need it, the chances for more serious acting out later in life, when the consequences are far more serious, increase significantly.

The controlling, “step-back-while-I-show-you-how-it’s-done” parental attitude will eventually backfire once the child gets old enough to rebel or refuse. And because more time was spent pushing him to excel rather than on getting to know him, the parent is often at a loss as to how to reach this child once he really starts to push back. Then when the child gets too obnoxious or too insistent, the parent may simply give up and give in.

Many of these kids lose trust in adults and feel they have no one to turn to for advice and support. A recent survey showed that the people children most want to spend time with are their parents. They have a deep need for one-on-one time with their mom or dad. They want to be heard, questioned, listened to, and talked to by their parents and to gain the perspective that comes with age and experience. They need to sound out their ideas, hopes and dreams with someone they trust who loves them unconditionally and is on their side.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of lonely kids out there who rarely have frequent, relaxed, unscheduled time with mom or dad. Success at all costs bears a steep price. While on the one hand we have an enormous number of Ivy League applications going out, we also have a teen suicide rate that has tripled over the past two decades.

We’re at risk of raising a generation of kids who haven’t learned how to really struggle on their own to achieve something of value, how to fight fair, how to win with grace or lose with dignity, how to tolerate rejection or loneliness, how to daydream and imagine, or how to resolve a problem with a friend face to face.

Scary, sad, and not the way to go. Parents beware.


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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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