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Your Child Is Not Your “Friend”

by James Lehman, MSW
Your Child Is Not Your “Friend”

There is a purely emotional part of the parent/child relationship that is built on affection and esteem. Parents and children are genetically geared to love each other, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

But there’s a stage where parenting becomes a functional role, not just an emotional role. With infants, the emotional role shows when a mother demonstrates her love by holding, talking and singing to the child. The functional role involves feeding, changing diapers and bathing the baby. One without the other is damaging for the child. So if she just loved that child but didn’t do the responsible functional things, that child would be at great risk and would be harmed and neglected. If she just took care of the functional things and didn’t show that child any love, it would have long term effects on the child’s emotional development. The emotional and functional parenting roles go hand in hand. It’s not healthy to emphasize one at the cost of the other.

“I think parents often make the mistake of making their child their confidante. The child is not morally, emotionally or intellectually prepared to play that role.”

I think as kids grow older, the parent’s role becomes more functional and less emotional, which is a hard lesson for parents who want to be their child’s “best friend.” As parents, they may feel those emotions inside, but they really have to do more for their child functionally, and set limits with the child. Limit setting is a very healthy function. It’s how kids learn to figure out what’s safe and what’s not safe. What’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. The functional role changes for parents as the child grows. With a one-year-old, it involves changing diapers. With an eight-year-old, the functional role involves getting homework done. With a fifteen-year-old, it involves enforcing a responsible curfew.

Why You Shouldn’t Make Your Child Your Confidante

I think parents often make the mistake of making their child their confidante. So when they say, “I want to be his friend, and I want him to be my friend,” what they’re really saying is “I want be his confidante.” And that just does not fit with the functional role of a parent.

It’s a very well-meaning trap that parents fall into. They want to share with the child how they really feel about their grandmother. How they really feel about their neighbor. How they really feel about their teacher. But it’s ineffective because the child is not morally, emotionally or intellectually prepared to play that role. If you’re forty years old and you want a confidante, find another forty-year-old. Find a fifty-year-old. Find a thirty-five-year old. But don’t look for a ten-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a five-year-old.

If parents think teachers are in error, they should keep that to themselves and their peers and deal with the school directly. If you think the teacher’s an idiot for not letting your child chew gum in the room, you can be your kid’s “best friend” and say, “That’s a stupid rule and that teacher’s a jerk.” Or you can be a functional parent and say, “Boy, I really disliked that rule when I was in school too. But I had to follow the rules.” Two different responses. Both responses empathize with the child, but one makes him a confidante, which is ineffective. The other teaches him the importance of following rules. Remember this: if you punch holes in authority figures, thinking you’re being a confidante with your kid, don’t be surprised when he disrespects that authority figure. And then if you give him consequences for that disrespect, he’s going to look at you as a hypocrite.

When you make your child your confidante, you are saying that you and the child are co-decision makers. But the fact is, you and your child are not co-decision makers in any realistic way. Kids can offer you their opinion. They can tell you what they like and dislike. But certainly decisions, especially important ones but even certain minor ones, have to be made by you, the parent. Kids have to understand that the family moves as a unit and the adults make the decisions.

I think you can certainly share some things with a child without turning him into a confidante. One of the things you can share with a child is the statement, “We can’t afford that.” It’s a factual statement that explains the limits under which you must live. What you shouldn’t share with the child is, ”I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent this month.” It’s something that the child is not prepared for, and it develops in him a way of looking at the world that is unhealthy and not realistic.

If you have a tendency to treat your child as a “friend,” you should understand this important interpretation of friendship: friends are a group of people that have the same notion about ideas and life. The truth is, children and adults have very different notions about what they should be doing. They have entirely different notions about what’s right and wrong. They have very different notions about what they want to do tonight. So I think that you need to be a parent to your child and be loving, caring and responsible. But I think you have to find your confidantes outside of that family structure.

Don’t Try to Parent Your Child The Way You Wish Your Parents Had Parented You

Many parents try to raise their child in a way that they wish their parents had parented them. It sounds nice on paper, but it just doesn’t work. So if your parents were distant or rigid with you, or they seemed uncaring to you or they seemed self-involved to you or they made horrible personal mistakes and didn’t give you the guidance you needed, you shouldn’t overcompensate for that by violating parent-child boundaries with your own child. This can be characterized as a “reaction formation.” In reaction to deficits you saw in your own parents, you form a way of parenting that’s not healthy for you or for your child.

Remember that anything done in a reactionary way is going have unforeseen consequences. And the biggest problem with parent-child friendships is all the unforeseen consequences. Parents tend to look only at the foreseen consequences. For example, my child will like me more if I’m his friend. He’ll trust me. Parents don’t look at the unforeseen consequences, such as, he won’t listen to the word no because I never used it with him or taught him how to deal with it.

The goal of adolescence is individuation--separation from adults. That means that the child is going to have his own business, beliefs and rules that he’s not going to want to share with adults. You need to know that it’s not a violation of the parent-child relationship for that child to develop his own set of friends and his own values. Those friends and values may not be healthy from a parent’s point of view or an objective observer’s point of view. But it’s the child’s job to work through that. People who don’t individuate from their parents in pre-adolescence and adolescence end up with emotional and social problems in life.

Many parents see this individuation happening in their adolescent children and feel abandoned by the child when they have parented too much in the emotional role and have acted as the child’s friend. They feel a remarkable sense of loss, and they compensate for it by blaming the child.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Not Do Their Homework

I want to draw an important distinction for you here. In the end, you can be your child’s friend—just not his confidante. The key is having a responsible friendship with your child.

You know the saying, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk?” Well, friends don’t let friends not do their homework. Friends don’t let friends make excuses for failure. Friends don’t let friends badmouth the teacher and defy the rules in the classroom. That’s the type of friend you need to be to your child. A responsible friend. And the model of responsible friendship is identical to the model of responsible parenting.

How to Stop Being Your Child’s Confidante Now

If you’ve “shared” too much with your child and not set the kind of limits they need, for whatever reason, all in the name of being your child’s “friend,” you can change to become more effective. It begins by talking to your child—about what you’re going to talk about from now on. Say, “I’ve decided that there are some things I should be talking to other adults about. So I’m not going to talk to you about them anymore because I think it hurts our relationship.” You don’t have to be specific about the subject matter. Just be clear.

Then you need to learn how to respond differently to your child, not simply demand that the child communicate differently. For instance, if you and your child have been talking about what a jerk a certain teacher is for years and the child brings it up, you can’t simply come out and say, “Don’t call that teacher a jerk anymore.” Instead, say this: “I don’t think it helps us to label that teacher. Let’s figure out how you can handle this situation successfully.” An irresponsible friend will sit around and badmouth the teacher with their child. A responsible friend will help their child solve the problem he’s having with the teacher.

Parents in divorced families will often both try to be the child’s confidante, and the child gets stuck painfully in the middle. The mother’s telling him what the father’s like, what he’s doing and not doing. The father’s talking about what mom is like, how crazy she is, how controlling she is. I’ve heard kids in divorced families say that their mom is “so controlling, she’s awful. I can’t live with her.” They were just parroting what the father said to them. The most poisonous thing is that what the parents are saying might be true to some degree. And the kid can see it. But he can’t react to it properly because he doesn’t have the maturity to do it. These parents might point out defects in the other parent that are accurate. But the way they point them out—by treating the child as a confidante--empowers the child to attack them.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


This article hits home for me.I am separated with a nine yr old son.His dad treats him as his buddy. my son has some major issues with aggression towards me and i have always felt that it is because his father doesn't parent him and he shares his adult feelings about me with our son,therefore giving our son permission to treat me the way he does. My ex has even said he is his buddy first and his parent second. i have expressed to him the children need their parents to guide them.They have friends of the same age,their parents are not their friends. i have had my son removed from my home before because of his aggression and he was placed with his father for a while....his father gave him no consequences for his behaviour,in fact they went out for dinner and he bought him some clothes he wanted,so again my son was rewarded for his behaviour towards me. I am going to print this article and have it given to my ex.....maybe he will clue in when he reads it from someone else.

Comment By : lynne

I believe this article is to the point and makes sense as far as me being able to understand why my kids and I can be at wits end at times.

Comment By : Debbie

another great article for parents of a divorced or a seperated family or just having some problems with their children and need some advice that might help what they may be going through and help with their own situation and their children's lives

Comment By : Jamie

Bravo! It's not rocket science, but it sure is good to hear this again, or maybe even for the first time for some of us. It's basic common sense that many parents need to hear once in awhile. Wish my ex could read this.

Comment By : Milane

Great reading material! I could not agree more.

Comment By : Isis

Thank you for making this more clear to me. Our children are 19,15,8 and 5. We have made many mistakes with the older two. Your help has made it possible for us to not make the same mistakes with the younger ones. Our 19yr. old is very distant and moved out recently. Our 15yr. old made some very bad choices and is not living in our house. We are heartbroken, but your help has opened our eyes to areas that we need to change. Hearing from a man has really helped my husband because he didn't have a good relationship with his dad. I didn't have one with my parents either-double trouble. You already know how we reacted. Thanks for giving us this insight. Now we have to implement it with more confindence.

Comment By : Denise

wow! this is a totally awesome article. it totally describes the issues i am having with my ex & my son. my son is 14 & his father is not willing to do what is best for the child's best interest. it REALLY hit's home! i so wish my ex could read this! thank you ever so much!

Comment By : Lynne

The fact is this article makes you think of serious issues in the parent/child relationship..It's a hard thing break bad habits...But it's nessessary...Thank-You

Comment By : parent A

While the author makes good points, I am a believer that one size doesnt fit all when it comes to parent-child relationships. Develop your own relationship - based on trust, truth and tolerance - and knowing that someday - as they grow older - and not need you any longer - youve set the right tone for your kid.

Comment By : Phil

I think the role of a parent changes as your child grows into an adult. Many parents make the mistake of not being a friend when a child really needs just someone to listen not lecture or give advice. When children are young they need rules, guidance, boundries but as they start to grow into their own, it's time to cut the cords and let them become who they are. Parents need to remember what it was like to be a kid, teenager and stop pretending to some all-knowing authority... we as "adults" still learn everyday and it's good to share that with your children so they know life is a lifelong learning experience.

Comment By : Sue

I'm going to guess that the majority of people who have read this are the parents who are NOT being the is my case. My husband has so poisoned my daughter against me that it affects every aspect of our not healthy for her and he refuses to see it. I am hoping some professional intervention will help sort this out for her and him and teach me how to deal with it in a positive manner!

Comment By : Deb

I started off not being afraid to discipline and say "no" to my first-born son. When he was very young, he began asking me questions, confiding in me, and telling me things that he would never tell his father. As a result of our closeness, I gradually slipped into the role of a confidant and more of a friend. Now that he is 19, I realize I was more a friend to him --I avoided making waves during the most formidable years of his life. Instead of siding with my husband and working out our parenting issues, I was too quick to defend my son so that he would not "suffer." Today, my son does not take life seriously, has no respect for authority, and lacks the discipline he needs to make important decisions. I truly agree with this article. I have certainly failed at parenting my first born, but I will not make the same mistakes with my other two children. It's truly a rude awakening and a very sad moment of truth for me.

Comment By : the_mrs

I want to take this article, print it, and nail it to the forehead of my step-daughter's real dad who is so guilty of this. Especially the area discussing how ingratiating yourself to your child by undermining authority figures merely teachers children to disrespect that authority figure. Because this is EXACTLY what I deal with now for 2 years and every week she comes back from dads and dis's me for 2 or 3 days solid before we finally have to get heavy and kill that behavior. We have caught him doing it in text messages to her, etc... It is so frustrating to me because I treat to put his own kids before my own needs, but he cannot put aside his own pettiness for the sake of his daughter's well being and see that I am indeed an honorable man trying to do my best and its hard enough earning respect as a relatively new step-parent without him using his biological dad status advantage to undermine me constantly.

Comment By : Danny J. Albers

So after reading this article, I have again realized I have made tons of 'mistakes' but my daughter is 20, in college and has a 10 hour a week job, 4 credit accounts and student loan debt, never saved for a car, and one her first job, she was approached by the store manager who hired her, and they began an affair which was supposed to have been nipped in the bud 6 months ago...he was fired at the store for sexual harrassment of other employees...the man is 50, married, smokes like a chimney...and my daughter to whom I thought I had a decent communication...has turned into an arrogant, verbally and physically abusive young adult who thinks because she is 20, she hasn't any reason to listen to me or cooperate any longer...battle of wills...she used to be soo helpful, caring, considerate, loving, etc...he's corrupted her and been sending her links to porn, sex toys,etc. Haven't I the right to be alarmed at this turn of events...oh yes...she's been lying for 6 months..swearing that she nor he wanted a relationship with each other...geez...I just want peace in my me please...I want her to move out fast...I am dealing with too many health concerns and just cannot take the stress...she thinks my concern over her is an evasion of privacy....

Comment By : MomInTheMiddle

* To “MomInTheMIddle”: We appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us. I can hear how upset and frustrated you are by the choices your daughter is making. It can be quite distressing when our children make choices we feel are not in their best interest. Keep in mind, even though you may not be able to control her choices, you can control how you respond to her choices. What might be effective in your situation is coming up with either a living agreement for your daughter or a plan for having her move out. In his article Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement? James Lehman outlines how to set up a living agreement, a contract of sorts that outlines what your expectations are and what the consequences will be if those expectations are not met. In the end, only you can determine what your limits and boundaries are and how you will respond should your daughter continue to disrespect those limits and boundaries. I hear how you are at the point of wanting her to move out. That is completely understandable given the circumstances. In that case, you may want to refer to the article Failure to Launch, Part 3: Six Steps to Help Your Adult Child Move Out. This is the third article in the adult child series by Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner. In it, they outline the steps to having your child move out. We wish you and your family the best as you address these challenges. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I'm trying to give this article 5 stars but it won't let me! Anyways, it really is something I need to tape up in several areas of my home because I forget so easily! I give my son a consequence for behaviors and then I forget that I've done so. Like taking away tv. I take it away and a few hours later we are sitting down together to watch some show. Usually half-way through I remember and then its too late! My son and I have this exact "friendship" relationship described above. I never meant for it to happen, it just did. I kind of thought it was too late to change and I'd already messed him up for life! I'm happy to hear that there is still hope for us both because I DO want my child to grow up strong and confident and not emotionally or socially handicapped! My son is 10 years old and still sleeping in my bed. As a single mom, it's worked for us both from day one. But I do know he NEEDS his own bed now but he puts up a huge fuss about it and tells me how scared he is. I grew up terrified of my closet at night and the shadows on the walls and so I don't want to put my son through that same fear! But somehow he needs to sleep alone and learn to cope. I just don't know HOW to do it! We have a small apartment and share a room. I wish I could move so he could have his own room and I could have mine, but we can't afford it. I wish I knew a real solution that would help us both! Thank you for this article, which really does offer me hope and guidance!

Comment By : ytspyder

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effective parenting, establishing structure, family rules, power struggles, James Lehman, The Total Transformation, Child behavior programs, child respect, children anger, children back talking

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