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Why You Can’t Be Your Child’s Friend

by Janet Lehman, MSW
Why You Can’t Be Your Child’s Friend

Here’s the truth: if being your kids’ friend was enough to raise them successfully, we would all probably parent that way. But our job is way more complicated than that. Children and teens really crave boundaries, limits and structure. At the same time, they also need some healthy separation from us as they go through adolescence and develop into adults. Our role as parents is really to teach, coach and give our kids consequences when they misbehave. If you slip into that friend role, however, it’s virtually impossible to lay down the law and set limits on your child’s inappropriate behavior.

When you treat your child like a friend, you’re telling her that she is your peer, and that her power is equal to yours.

I’ve noticed that a lot of parents are trying to be their kids’ friends these days—many give in to their kids’ demands, perhaps because they want to be the “cool” parent. Sometimes it’s because the parents are simply exhausted from working so hard, managing the household and trying to raise their kids as best they can. Being a friend is much easier and more comfortable than being a parent, after all—at least at first. But understand that if it continues, it creates severe problems down the road, because it becomes very confusing for them. It creates poor boundaries and makes it hard for your child to relate appropriately to other adults.

Related: Does your child think he's in control of your house?

Sometimes being your kids' friend lends itself to having a “confidante” relationship, where you treat them more like a peer, rather than a child. As a result, their respect for you (and other adults) can diminish. You’re not in charge anymore, and they may feel like they’re responsible for your emotions in some way. But this isn’t fair to kids—they are not meant to play that role with us. As they grow up, they really need to learn what their place is in the world, and we need to give them time to grow into each phase. Treating them like a peer doesn’t allow them to just be kids in the long run. If you suspect you might be doing this, you really need to look at what’s happening and try to change the dynamic. (More about this next.)

“TMI, Mom and Dad!”

When you take on that “friend” role with your kids, you can get into the habit of oversharing information, which can include talking about adult difficulties or complex problems. This is dangerous because it really gives your child the message that you are vulnerable and need them to be strong for you. Of course it’s okay to have problems, but sharing them with our kids isn’t fair because our issues are too difficult for them to handle. Instead, we need to be able to help our kids with their problems, and to give them the message that we’re here for them as responsible adults. Rather than thinking, “What can my child do for me in my time of distress?”, we as parents need to think about what we can do for our kids when they’re going through tough times. And as adults, we need to learn to get our needs met differently—by talking to other adults.

Understand that you run the risk of losing your child’s respect if you’re sharing your weaknesses or looking as if you can’t handle your problems. Your child needs you to listen to him, be a sounding board, a teacher and coach. I understand this firsthand, because my mother overshared with me. She was worried about losing my father’s affections, and confided all her fears about their relationship to me. From a young age, I knew she was emotionally fragile. I quickly became a “Parentified” kid—meaning that as a child, I was the one taking care of her, and not the other way around.

The truth is, kids should not know what parents struggle with in their relationships. Sometimes, your child might overhear you arguing, and if that happens, you can later say, “I’m sorry you had to hear that; that wasn’t for you. Dad and I will make sure that doesn’t happen again.” If you’re going through financial difficulties, your kids will most likely be aware of it, and that’s okay. You might say to them, “We don’t want you to be burdened with this. We’re working hard to do what’s best for our family.”

Related: How to stop the power struggle with your child and take back your parental authority.

How to stop oversharing: If you’ve been oversharing with your child, come clean and be honest. You might say, “I shouldn’t have shared those things with you; I’ve put too much on you. I’m not going to do that anymore.” By setting those limits, you’ll begin to change the relationship. Your child may not like it at first—they may even fight you on it for a while, in fact—but ultimately, it’s the best thing for them. Look at it this way: they don’t really want to take on your vulnerabilities. They’re not mature enough to handle that kind of information. It’s difficult for them to handle their own emotions, much less their parents'. In the long run, they’re going to appreciate what you’ve said.

You will also need to respond differently to your child and not simply demand that he communicates differently. For example, if you and your child have been talking for years about how annoying a relative is, it won’t be effective to simply say, “Don’t call Aunt Jane a jerk anymore.” Instead, try saying: “I don’t think it helps to call Aunt Jane names. Let’s figure out how you can get along with her more successfully.” That way, you’re helping him solve the problem he’s having with his aunt—and you’re not complaining to him about issues you yourself might have with her.

Who’s the Parent?

When you treat your child like a friend, you’re telling her that she is your peer, and that her power is equal to yours. This will block your ability to be responsible and accountable with your child, because you won’t be able to effectively set limits and give consequences when she misbehaves. After all, what would you say to your best friend if they told you they were giving you a consequence for being late or for doing housework? You’d probably laugh in his or her face! We do not expect our friends to be our coaches or to set limits for us. That’s not a traditional friendship role—but it is part of your role as a parent. The bottom line is that if you act like your child’s friend, she won’t take your authority seriously. And if you are so close with your child that she becomes your confidante, it will be easier to let her off the hook for things—the same way we let our friends off the hook sometimes.

Lines of division: It’s also important to realize that if you tell your child about your problems, this can have a harmful effect on your relationship with your mate—and on your child’s relationship with the other parent, as well. When you go to your child with your problems rather than to your partner, you lose that connection with him or her. It also makes it harder for your kids to have a close relationship with the other parent, because at some point it forces them to pick a side. It’s not fair to make them feel like they have to choose one parent or the other.

The importance of separation and individuation: As your kids go through the developmental stage of adolescence, they need to be able to “individuate” and separate from you as a parent. If you’re bonded too closely, it may be very difficult for them to get the separation necessary in order to grow. Kids who aren’t able to do this often rebel in their adult years—or they go the other direction and never leave home or function on their own. As painful as it is for us sometimes, it’s imperative that at some point our kids push us away a bit so they can mature and develop their own sense of self. As parents, we really have to accept that our kids are growing into separate individuals. That’s a good thing, because that’s how they learn to function in the world. And if you and your child have more of a friendship than a parent-child relationship, they may have a hard time doing this.

As parents, we also need some breaks from our kids. Our goal is to raise them to be their own people. If you need someone to talk to, reach out to friends and family, a support group or maybe even the school system. But make those connections and do what you can to find like-minded peers to confide in instead of your child.

Related: How to stop feeling anxious about your child and learn to parent calmly.

So does that mean I shouldn’t hang out with my kids?

Of course you want to spend time with your child and have fun together—and you should! You can (and should) still do friendly activities with them. In fact, it’s very important to have those moments. I’m not suggesting you cut your kids off and say, “We’re not going to be friendly with each other anymore.” The problem arises when you start relating to your child as if you are one of their friends, and not their parent who has their best interests at heart, but who also has authority over them.

Friendships are generally comfortable and easy. It would be great if parenting was like that, too—but it really isn’t. Our true role as a parent is as an educator, guide, supporter, limit setter and coach. This is how we’ll teach our kids to be successful, responsible, and accountable adults.


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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

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