Their bodies, ourselves

Are hyperinvolved parents discovering themselves through their kids' illnesses?

Published December 13, 2007 10:15AM (EST)

When parents notice they have the same disorders as their children, is it just noticing a genetic predisposition or another case of over-identification? A story published earlier this week in the New York Times explores a fascinating new diagnostic pattern in American families. The kid gets diagnosed with ADD, autism or some other condition that was less than common when the parents were young and the parents suddenly realize they share some of the same traits. Some go on to have their own symptoms diagnosed; others simply use the observation to help their child deal. Of course in many ways, this is simply parents observing the obvious -- many psychological and developmental disorders have a genetic component, so as our children go under the microscope we may learn a thing or two about ourselves. But one line from the piece suggested that the trend in family diagnostics may have a cultural component as well: "In an act of solidarity, parents may exaggerate similarities between their thinking and behavior and their son's or daughter's."

Thus, hyperinvolved, child-centered parenting may have some interesting ramifications -- far beyond the rare, freaky MySpace stalking mother. Of course, for those parents who do struggle with a similar disorder, their child's diagnosis may unlock a world full of miraculous medicines, intellectual understanding and empathy. But what if the parent simply can't stand to see the child get pinned with a lonely label? What if a parent with a mild version of the disorder who has been highly functional now wants to be medicated just like his or her child?

Based on a few interviews with parents and a couple of experts, the Times piece didn't go so far as to suggest that the vicarious myopia of modern parents has triggered a big new profit pool for pharmaceutical companies. But it is interesting to contemplate these me-too diagnoses as one more unforseen way that our changing family structures can send ripples outside the home.

Of course, we can't stop the forward trajectory of parental influence. We give our children our family culture, even when we feel it may be the other way around. But it's curious to see parents who discover their own selves not only through their children's friendships and achievements but even their illnesses.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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