Stage parents can destroy families

  • By William Hageman Chicago Tribune
  • Friday, March 29, 2013 3:56pm
  • Life

In the late 1970s and ’80s, Melissa Francis was all over TV. She appeared in almost 100 commercials and spent two years in the cast of “Little House on the Prairie.”

But Francis, now an anchor on the Fox Business Network, didn’t reach those heights by herself. Her mother was right behind her, pushing. And pushing hard.

Francis, now 40, has detailed her mother’s relentless driving in an excellent memoir, “Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter.”

And although her mother ultimately destroyed their family (the two have been estranged for several years), Francis looks back with mixed feelings.

“I have great memories, wonderful things she did, and other things that were very difficult,” she said. “It was very difficult as a child to untangle the positive from the abusive.”

That same stage-mother or, more accurately, stage-parent, mentality can be seen at dance recitals, school plays or children’s concerts everywhere, and is not confined to the highest echelons of the entertainment and arts worlds.

What prompts a parent to have this all-consuming drive?

Liliana Lengua is director of the University of Washington Center for Child and Family Well-Being, an interdisciplinary research center. She says she doesn’t know of any research (focused on) the stage parent and speculates there are different factors for different people.

“There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and energy around these activities,” Lengua said. “Parents may think they’re highlighting the wonderful talents of their children. And there may be a reflective glow: If my child is well-liked, I may be doing something right. It’s pretty complicated. I doubt there’s only one factor.”

Another factor, she said, may be that the parent sees the time involved as proof of commitment or devotion to the child.

Francis understands that point of view. “I think in acting it’s almost impossible (to succeed) without a stage parent. It’s not like sports, where kids go after school. They have to take the kid out of school, sit on the set all day and get no pay.”

One thing for certain about this sort of behavior: It can be detrimental not only to the child but to siblings as well. In Francis’ case, her older sister, Tiffany, who was also seen in numerous commercials, ended up neglected and rejected by their mother as Francis’ career flourished. (Her sister suffered from a string of emotional and physical problems and died in 2002.)

Francis, meanwhile, eventually rejected her mother’s methods and rebelled. She quit acting, wound up going to Harvard against her mother’s wishes and got a degree in economics.

What can be done about a stage parent?

Ann C. Stadtler is director of site development and training at Brazelton Touchpoints Center in Boston, which works to promote the health and well-being of infants and young children.

She suggested approaching the person on a nonconfrontational, parent-to-parent basis. “If we give them the message, ‘I think you’re trying to do the best for your child,’ we can get a window in.”

And through that window, a parent might be able to reason with the stage parent, who often doesn’t realize how overbearing he or she is.

There’s a delicate line between helpful and harmful behavior, Francis said, particularly for a kid. “There were many times where we were a happy, winning pair,” she said. “I was a very successful actor, and a lot of that was attributable to her.”

Signs of trouble

Is the parent showing favoritism to one child? Kids are sensitive to cues as to favoritism,

Is the child overanxious or depressed? Those are signs that a parent may be exerting too much pressure to perform on the child, who may no longer be interested in the activity but continues merely to please Mom or Dad.

Who is this for, the kid or the parent? Sometimes, being part of a performance is more for a parent’s ego gratification than the child’s well-being.

Is the parent inhibiting the child’s emotional growth? A stage parent often fails to nurture a child’s emotional development in areas such as making friends or learning empathy.

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