The emotional role of the parent is built on love, affection, and esteem. It’s an essential part of being a parent, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold. But your role as a parent is not just emotional. And your child is not your friend.

Indeed, much of the parenting role is functional. For an infant, that means feeding, changing diapers, bathing, and generally providing for the child. For an eight-year-old, it means ensuring homework gets done. And for a fifteen-year-old, it means setting and enforcing a responsible curfew.

Understand that if a mother loves her child emotionally but neglects the functional role, that child is at risk of not maturing into a responsible adult. Indeed, emotional and functional parenting roles go hand in hand. It’s not healthy to emphasize one at the cost of the other. You need both.

Parents also need to understand that the amount of emotional versus functional requirements changes over time. As a child gets older, the parent needs to take on more of a functional role and less of an emotional one because the goal for older kids is to prepare them to live without you.

Your Child May Not Like Your Functional Role

A parent may want to feel emotionally attached to their older child, but at the same time, the parent must do functional things that the child may not like. For example, parents need to set limits with their children, and your child may dislike you and may resist you when you set limits.

Nevertheless, setting limits is a healthy function, and you need to do it for your child’s sake. Limits are how kids learn to figure out what’s safe and what’s not safe. And what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate.

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You are your child’s authority—that’s your role and responsibility. Do you have an emotional relationship with your child? Yes. But if you try to be friends with your child, it comes at the cost of your authority, and it undermines your role as a parent.

Practically speaking, your child can find another friend, but your child can’t find another parent. You and only you can be your child’s parent, and that’s why you need to be the parent and not the friend.

And if it’s you who needs a friend, I suggest you look elsewhere and don’t expect your child to be your friend.

Don’t Make Your Child Your Confidant

I think parents often make the mistake of making their child their confidant. So when they say, “I want to be his friend, and I want him to be my friend,” what they’re saying is, “I want to be his confidant.” 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 feel about their grandmother, for example. Or how they feel about their neighbor. Or how they 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 confidant, find another forty-year-old. Or a fifty-year-old. Or a thirty-year-old. Just know that your fifteen- or ten-year-old child can’t be your confidant.

Don’t Criticize Your Child’s School or Teacher In Front of Your Child

If parents think teachers are in error, they should keep that to themselves and their peers and deal with the school directly. Be careful what you say to your child about it.

For example, if you think the teacher’s a jerk for not letting your child chew gum, don’t say so to your child. Instead, say:

“Boy, I disliked that rule when I was in school too. But I had to follow the rules.”

Calling the teacher a jerk in front of your child makes your child your confidant, and that’s ineffective parenting.

Remember this: if you make your kid your confidant and disrespect authority figures in front of them, don’t be surprised when they disrespect that authority figure. Or when they disrespect you. And then, if you give them consequences for that disrespect, they’re going to look at you as a hypocrite.

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When you make your child your confidant, you are saying that you and the child are co-decision makers. But 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 certain decisions—especially important ones—have to be made by you, the parent.

At the end of the day, kids need to understand that the family acts as a unit, and the adults are responsible for the decisions.

Don’t Share Too Much With Your Child

I think you can share some things with a child without turning them into a confidant. But you have to be careful.

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 financial limits under which you must live.

But, what you shouldn’t share with the child is, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent this month.” That’s something your child is not prepared for emotionally. It makes them anxious about something over which they have no control. It’s unhealthy for them.

Kids have enough fear and anxiety of their own to deal with. Don’t use your child as a confidant to share your problems. Instead, use your spouse or an adult friend. That’s more effective and appropriate.

So I think that you need to be a parent to your child and be loving, caring, and responsible. But find your confidants elsewhere.

Adults and Children Have Different Notions About Life

If you treat your child as a “friend,” you should understand this about friendship: friends are a group of people who have similar notions and ideas about life. That’s not you and your child.

The truth is that children and adults have quite different notions about what they need to do. They have different notions about right and wrong. And they have different priorities. That’s appropriate and to be expected. But that’s not a recipe for friendship. And if you try to make it a friendship, it causes unnecessary conflict and angst.

Leave Your Personal History Out of Your Parenting

Parents will often overcompensate for problems they remember in their own childhood. For example, if you were wild and out-of-control, you may be overly strict with your child because you don’t want your child to take the same risks and make the same mistakes that you did.

Likewise, if you were raised in an overly strict household, you may be overly lenient with your child.

This overcompensating is referred to as reaction formation by psychologists. In reaction to how you were parented as a child, you form a way of parenting that’s not healthy for your child.

For example, if your emotional needs weren’t met, you may overcompensate by trying to be your child’s friend and smothering your child with attention and affection. And that may have harmful unintended consequences.

Indeed, you may think your child will like you more if you’re their friend. You may think they’ll trust you more. But here’s the problem. They may not respect your authority as a result. They may not listen to the word “no” because you never used it or taught them how to deal with it. They may not even want you as a friend. When I was a teen, I sure didn’t want to hang out with my parents, and that’s okay.

In the end, you can’t fix your childhood through your child.

The Goal of Adolescence is for Kids to Separate From Their Parents

The goal of adolescence is for kids to separate from their parents. In psychology, we call this individuation. Individuation refers to the process through which a person achieves a sense of individuality separate from the identities of others.

Individuation is healthy. It means your teen child will want to have a life separate from you. It’s how they become an individual. And as a result, they may not want to share their life with you the way they did in the past.

Understand that your child needs to separate from you to become independent. You may not always approve of their friends and values, but it’s your child’s job to work through that. People who fail to individuate from their parents end up with emotional and social problems. And they often don’t leave home.

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

How to Stop Being Your Child’s Confidant

If you’ve shared too much with your child and have not set the kind of limits they need, all in the name of being your child’s friend, you can change to become a more effective parent. It begins by explaining to your child what you’re going to talk about from now on. You can 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. For instance, if you and your child have been talking about what a jerk a particular teacher is for weeks and the child brings it up again, then say to your child:

“You know, I’ve been thinking that it doesn’t help to label your teacher a jerk. Let’s figure out how you can handle this situation more effectively.”

It’s normal for friends to sit around and bad-mouth their teachers. It’s what they do. But a responsible parent will help their child solve the problem they’re having with the teacher. And that’s what you need to do.

Divorced and Unmarried Parents

In divorced families, each parent may try to be the child’s confidant, and the child gets stuck painfully in the middle. The mother’s telling the child what his father’s like, what he’s doing, and not doing. And the father’s telling the child what his mom’s like, how she’s crazy, and how she’s controlling.

I’ve heard kids in divorced families complain that their mom is “so controlling, she’s awful. I can’t live with her.” Too often, they were just repeating what their father said to them.

The problem is that the complaints may be valid to some degree. And now the kid can see it. But they can’t react to it appropriately because they don’t have the maturity to do so. It’s not right to put your child in that position.

Act Like the Responsible Adult Your Child Needs

I want to make an important point for you here. In the end, you can be friendly with your child. That’s a beautiful thing. But not at the expense of being their parent.

The key is to have a responsible relationship with your child. Responsible adults don’t let their children skip their homework, they don’t let their children make excuses for failure, and they don’t bad-mouth the teachers. That’s the type of relationship you need to have with your child. It’s called being a responsible adult—an adult who loves their child and, at the same time, holds their child accountable. It’s called effective parenting.

Related Content: Grandparents and Parents Disagreeing? 11 Tips for Both of You

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Notes and References


James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (23)
  • Sandy
    This is a balance that shifts through the teenage years. By the time they are 18 you had better be their parent and their friend, because they confide in friends first. You can still support and influence if you are great friends. This balance shifted for us around age 16More as gradually more independence is handed over. To be a friend you need to be firmly in their corner and let them know how wonderful you know them to be. They need so much love and support especially if they leave home for Uni, pray they still come to you for guidance under attack of all the potentially bad influences there. Being friends does not mean not having boundaries because you need these in all relationships.
  • Tink

    With all due respect, everyone is different and one individual persons opinion and ideas cannot work for everyone, so there are families where some moms and their sons/daughters(this goes for dads as well) are friends but still the parent to, I personally watched my recoving alcoholic daughter struggle for the past 12 yrs, Ive stood by her side 200% for past 10yrs,I've been belittled, told I'm a shitty mom,only time I see her often, she been sober for 9mnths but rarely does she want me around, I watch her being sober with her 16 yr old daughter and they have a good relationship they like to spend time together, i envy that as we

    Did not, my granddaughter has also been dealing with her mom for past 10 years also, I was a "mom"(a cool mom) not her friend. When drinking my daughter trampled me, the couple times she tried to become sober, didnt last to long, she has changed from when she was 14-18, your advice is good FOR SOME, BUT NOT ALL, I pray for my daughters family and I try to what for her to talk to me, I'm learning to accept and deal with the way my whole family is, some of your ideas helped a little, so thank you and I know there are those that your ideas and research can and will help, bless you and stay safe,

  • Conna

    So sad to see such an extreme and cold point of view. The problem is that we define "friend" and consider anything within that definition off limits to parents, but that legalistic approach is bad for the entire family and will not teach your child empathy or the confidence that comes with the certainty that someone truly knows and loves you during developmental years.

    Friends play together. Play with your children. Interact with them, laugh with them, share walks together, and share hobbies.

    Friends care about our problems. Listen to even the most trivial concerns that your child wants to voice to you. Treat their thoughts and opinions with respect. Guide them into good decisions and the pursuit of good character.

    Friends tell us the truth. Lying to our children is sometimes necessary for their protection, but beyond that, we shouldn't do it. Too many times it becomes a habit, and we do it out of convenience. They figure it out, and they never really trust us again.

    I was and am my daughter's friend. She shared her hopes, dreams, fears, thoughts, dilemmas, and pain with me. I was NOT an equal, however. My authority was clear, but it was also explained. I had the job of taking care of her, disciplining her, and making big decisions in her life. This was for her good, and it was because I love her.

    She always understood that I loved her, and she always came to me with her decisions and problems. It was unnecessary to reject her friendship and coldly be a functional authority figure.

    Now that she is in college, I still hear from her every day. I've taken on the role of advisor and counselor, now, as we both chart this new area where she's a legal adult, but she still wants to respect my authority, as she's a NEW adult. If we weren't friends, that would be impossible.

    I hope we're always friends. She's an amazing person who I always want to be close to. I hope she'll always seek my advice and remember the things I've taught her. It's wonderful to adore your child, rather than see them purely as a responsibility. Try it.

  • Thank you
    Clear and concise.
  • mastik8
    Be their parent, not their friend and remember, that extends into their adulthood if they so choose. I was told that my entire childhood then at some point, as a young adult, in their minds a switch flipped and they decided we could be friends. Sadly, no one consulted meMore about this change and if I fact wanted to be their friend now that I was an adult.
  • Sophia cooper
    Loved this article I’m 24 years old and you don’t know how many people enjoy to be around me for the way I was raised. I didn’t have much of a friendship with my mother but I did respect her! It taught me right from wrong.. Also when I couldMore have something and couldn’t. After I became and adult Is when my mother became my bestfirend. I see the way children and parents have relationships today and it just sickens me or when parents ask me why there kids are so disrespectful... What do you thinks gonna happens, when they think their on your level. HELLO!!!!
  • Zeeb
    Friend - a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection. You may know your child's patterns and routines but that doesn't mean you know your child. Your child's feelings and especially their thoughts are their own but they sometimes need guidance.More Don't forget to try to be there for your child as they reason their way through difficult decisions. Kids and teenagers aren't mentally developed even when they have a strong moral background. It's up to parents to truly know their children which by definition makes them a friend.
  • bonnie
    Nxawww anon! You are such a nice person! Now I wish you were my friend! Your mom is truely blessed to have you and so is your sister and your step dad.
  • anon
    I am doing an argumentative essay for my 8th grade advanced English class on "Should parents be friends with their kids?" before I read this article I still agreed that you shouldn't be your child's friend, I just needed evidence. While reading I noticed my mother used me as aMore counselor in ways. Do I blame her? Not really, she still set boundaries, and I was disciplined or am still being disciplined. My father past away when I was 2, my mother was 21 at the time and had no other children, there was just me. I will never understand how she felt, and I hope I never do. She drank a bit but she is an amazing mother, she has quit smoking as well. But still confides in me with issues at work, my step-father and other things. Sometimes I just can't understand how she feel because obviously I haven't experienced these things in 13 years on earth. Sometimes I felt she was more dependent on me than I was on her. At times I would have to console her, take care of her, because when she was growing up she didn't exactly have the best life, nothing against my grandmother of course. I have always been a bit different then my peers at school, more serious and mature at times if you will. I have noticed this, and I am sad to say I envy them, they seem carefree (not saying they don't have problems of their own) its just... well I don't know. Don't get me wrong I am grateful for all I have, I have a strong mother, where many would have just ditch their children at their mom's house ( As my aunt did with her children) she stuck with me, it was always us, I love her dearly, and when she got a boy friend that she liked (my step-father) I wasn't angry I was relieved that my mom found someone to love, someone to confide in, I was happy for her, for us. Glad fate gave her another chance at love. I have a little sister now, I am sad to say I am jealous of her having what I wish she I had growing up, a stable household, 2 loving parents, but I do not hate her for it, I am relieved that she has this.
  • Evie1011

    My ex husband and I seperate approx 2 yrs ago. I allowed our son (13 yrs old at the time) to live with his father during the weekdays because he said he loved his school so much.

    Every aspect of our sons life is a complete argument and my ex seldoms follows court orders. About a 1.5 yrs ago we also found out of our sons life threatening condition which I continually ask my ex to take care of. Our son is now at his 4th school program since our seperation and is on truancy status. My ex works a weekly job from 3am until about 6pm. Then has persuade his dream by becoming a personal trainer and also doing nutrition for others online. He also travels outside of the country at least once a month for a week or so for business. I just fought to get first right of refusal but my ex continues to ask for my son to stay at his home regardless how many times I ask him not too. Recently I recieved text conversations between our son and my ex regarding school and they were both speaking horrible to one another.

    I am recovering from ptsd from my exs abuse, mostly verbal and mental. I recently made it clear to my son that he will not speak down to me or question my rules.

    Im seriously considering on trying for full custody which I know my son will hate me for because he would rather have no rules.

    Im struggling with this decision simply because Im afraid to cause my son more trauma. The end of our marriage was not at all remotely normal or pleasant

    I could use any advice I can get..please

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Evie1011 Thank you for reaching out. I hear how much you are struggling with this decision right now, and how concerned you are for your son’s well-being.  I also hear your frustration with your ex’s lack of compliance with the court orders.  In the end, this is going to beMore your decision, based on your judgment of what is in your son’s best interests.  If you are not currently working with anyone, I encourage you to consult with a family lawyer who can talk with you about your options surrounding custody, and what your next steps might be.  If you need help locating a lawyer, one resource might be thehttp://www.211.orgat 1-800-273-6222.  211 is a service which provides information on resources, such as legal assistance, counseling, support groups, and others which are available in your community.  I recognize what a tough situation this is for you right now, and I wish you and your son all the best moving forward.  Take care.
  • Stepmom

    Is there some sort of compromise between friend and authoritarian parent? My husband is very much struggling to parent his teenage daughter.  His parents were immigrants and he grew up in a very traditional family and kids did exactly what their parents said. He's not from a culture where fathers show a lot of  affection to their children. His interaction with his daughter had always been based on school and praising her for her accomplishments.

    Now his daughter is suffering from severe mental illness. She's failing all of her classes again this year, she refuses to do chores. There's been no way to motivate her to do better, she doesn't care. She won't be able to continue at her high school unless her grades and behavior improve, but both have only gotten worse since that ultimatum. 

    When her dad gets home every evening, he always goes over all the emails with problems reported by teachers with her, the list of all the homework she hasn't done, and a long list of other things she won't do. It's the same every single night. The lists just keep getting longer and longer. 

    She doesn't have a single friend, and her therapist has been stressing building a support team of people to help her, but she absolutely hates me. I'm the one she directs all of her anger at so I'm the last person who can help. I don't know if my husband could ever change into a "friend parent", but at least then she would have one friend.

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      Thank you for writing in with your question.From our perspective, effective parenting

      tends to be found in the middle of the two extremes of either being your child’s

      friend and being an authoritarian.We

      have many articles, blogs and other resources which discuss effective parenting

      here on our site.Here are two you might

      find useful to read next: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/control-freak-vs-pushover-parenting-why-neither-works/ and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/3-parenting-styles-that-undermine-your-authority/.Please let us know if you have additional

      questions.Take care.

  • Nina
    I stopped reading this article when it started talking about other authority figures. Reasonable rules are one thing, but don't teach children to blindly obey just because a person is in a position of authority. That's wrong and sets children up for abuse. Not only will theyMore not recognize it for what it is, but they won't tell you about it when they're being abused if you push the idea that a person ALWAYS deserves respect as an authority figure. I've seen this happen and its not pretty. Someone who doesn't treat my children with the proper respect deserves none. No matter who they are!
  • readerwriter2015
    This article is very good and realistic. It is not like other stupid article where they indirectly say give up the role as head of family by entrapping misusing words like "be friend to your child".
  • JohnLiebner
    Some comments seem to be reading into this article and reacting to personal unresolved conflicts. But the common perception still comes through and that is parenting involves balance of nurture and correction. Parenting style studies show that erring in either extreme predicts poor adjustment skills for kids asMore they enter adulthood. I try to remember something that the author said in another article--a parent is an agent for society. We want our kids to be able to launch into the community as an active contributor and be able to adjust toward that employer or manager that mismanages or treats them poorly.
  • mastik8
    All well and good to say you're their parent and not their friend but when they grow up and don't call remember, they grew up hearing that you're not their friend. You don't have to be their friend but you must be friendly.
  • SBC
    When you are informing your children that you are not their friend, I hope you all are also telling them that you are not their enemy.  My parents wanted to be my enemy, and they made sure I knew it.  I will not depress you with the details, nor willMore I tell you the words and names that were screamed at me, but I can tell you that it was like being raised by police officers.
  • Leeca

    I love my son. And because I do, I have always been his mom, not his buddy.

    At the same time, I have done what this article says NOT to do - I have parented in a way I wish my parents had done with me, in that I have listened to him more, and I have tried to be impartial when he has had a problem with an authority figure (sometimes his opinion has won me over, other times I've told him "suck it up, life is not always fair."

    I agree with Hitler, who made some comment about "if you give me your child until age 6, the man will be mine" (or something to that effect). It's true. I taught my son from when he was a baby to be caring of others and to take responsibility for himself and his actions. I taught him how to cook, clean, do laundry, and other life skills. I always took him shopping with me, and I let him know up front if we could afford a treat or not (I don't put up with whining. and this stopped it cold) and I also let him help me out with finding the best deal (taught math skills and how to use a calculator).

    My son had his first job when he was only 6 - selling golf balls that the golfers next to our home hit into our yard - and when people from the golf course called to complain. (because my son's prices were lower than theirs) I backed my son 100%, and told them build a higher fence to keep us from almost getting decapitated by their golfers and I would then close down my son's business.

    My son bought his first bike with money he earned himself, and he was so proud of himself it almost made me cry.

    My son was also very spoiled in some respects - first grandchild on both sides of the family - and he received far too many gifts when he was younger, until I put a stop to it. One of my proudest moments was when he took his excess toys one summer and divided them into 2 groups- half to be sold, half to be given to "the poor sick children in the hospital who must get bored with no toys to play with".

    Of course my kid is far from perfect. But he is 35 now, and what he was taught in childhood has carried over into adulthood. I am so proud of him - he is kind, caring, self-supporting, respects others (yes, women included) and thinks for himself. Not a whiny brat who feels entitled to behave as he wants and take what he wants.

    And that is why you should be a parent - not a buddy.

    • Concerned big poppa
      I agree with you to a certain extent. Life choices, being respectable, begin preparing him ato an early age, all intentions. But it's difficult to accept a quote from an individual who ran life aggressively...I don't even want to say his name. But there is one quote that should beMore mentioned and accepted..."spare the rod and spoil child." You could take the quote physically or mentally. Me personally, I prefer mentally...physically as a last resort. But all in all, I'm glad the end result was more positive than negative, great job mom and great job for the transition from childhood to adulthood...great job young man.
  • andreaclark76
    I have a fiancé that tries to be his son's friend and I've told him before that he just can't be. Obviously, he doesn't listen. When the time comes, my fiancé can not or will not confront his 16 yr old on his bad behavior; any bad behavior. More His bad behavior usually consists of lying about small things or being rude and inconsiderate with me. And when I demand him apologize for his rudeness, I'm looked at as the bad guy. He sides with his son so his son won't feel badly or feel like he's siding with me. I'm so frustrated at this point that I really can't stand to be in the same room with his kid. I know they're both at fault, the father much more so, but I just turn into another person when this kid is around. We have been to a therapist before, about a yr ago, and I can say without a doubt, the therapist agreed with me on a lot of things (his micro expressions and body language ). He assessed that the then 15 yr old, was mentally and socially around 7 or 8. What can I do to not blow up around them both when the kid is there? Besides going and getting a hotel room for the weekend.
    • Frustrated girlfriend
      Omgosh I'm going through the same thing as you
      • andreaclark76
        I feel for you. I've been going thru this for 4 yrs now. The ex wife whispers in the sons ear to be hateful. Although now, as he gets older, he knows that his mom is manipulating him to be hateful and carry around her anger, but he feels powerlessMore against her because she is so manipulative. And his father doesn't like to say something right when an incident happens, because he doesn't want his son to have a bad time while he's there, since he only gets to see him once in a while. Guilty parenting. We have had a talk about it since this incident and my fiancé has apologized and has said he wrote his son a letter telling him everything. Good luck.
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