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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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.
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
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.
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
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.