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.
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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.