Why You Can’t Be Your Child’s Friend

Editor’s Note: Every now and then, we reach out to parenting experts to address important issues or questions that may arise within our community on Chelsea’s blog. This time, we welcome Racquel Jones, a licensed psychotherapist with a Masters degree in Clinical Social Work, to discuss why being friends with your children may thwart your ability to raise them into successful, responsible adults.

By Racquel Jones, rjoneslcsw.wordpress.com

If being your child’s friend was enough to raise them successfully, we would all probably parent that way. However being a parent is much more complicated. 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 to teach, coach, and give our kids consequences when they misbehave. If you slip into that friend role, however, it becomes very difficult to set limits on your child’s inappropriate behavior.

Being more of a a friend than a parent may seem easier and more comfortable than being a parent at first, however, if it continues, it can create  problems down the road because it becomes very confusing for your child. It creates poor boundaries and can make it hard for your child to relate appropriately to other adults.

Sometimes being your kid’s 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 can diminish. This may lead your child to feel like they’re responsible for your emotions in some way, however, 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.

When you take on that “friend” role with your kid, 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 children 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 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.  Your child needs you to listen to him or her, be a sounding board, a teacher, and coach.

Children 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.”

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 or she 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 your child solve the problem he or she is having with his or her aunt—and you’re not complaining about issues you yourself might have with her.

When you treat your child like a friend, you’re telling him or her that he or she is your peer. 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 he or 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  not 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, however, it is part of your role as a parent.

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 that 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 a therapist however make those connections and do what you can to find like-minded peers to confide in instead of your child.

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 and also has authority over them.

Friendships are generally comfortable and easy. It would be great if parenting was like that all the time 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.

Racquel P. Jones LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in New York and also a Licensed Social Worker in New Jersey. She has over 20 years experience working with children, families, adolescents, and adults. She is a graduate of Hunter College School of Social Work and also has extensive post graduate training in trauma, family therapy, and substance abuse. You can read more in her blog rjoneslcsw.wordpress.com.

Photo: stockimages

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4 comments

  1. Susanne

    Very insightful and helpful information. Children may have many friends throughout their lifetime, but only you for a patent. It’s a role of privilege no one else has and should be treated as such. For a child to become a healthy, responsible individual, role modeling and providing guidance and support in a parental fashion is the best gift we can give them. Thank you.

  2. dwfollett120

    Thank you! This was so important for me to read, especially as the mother of an only child. I really appreciated the author’s delineation of strategies to come back from over sharing with me child. All is not lost! I can do better & grow as a parent. The process of learning never stops! We need more non-judgmental teachers such as this author.

    • Thank you for commenting! We’re so happy that this article was helpful. We’re looking forward to featuring more experts on our parenting site in the coming weeks, so please stay tuned! :)

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