By James Lehman, MSW
The emotional role of the parent is built on love, affection, and esteem. It’s an important part of being a parent and it’s a beautiful thing to behold. But your child is not your friend. And your role as a parent is not just emotional.
Indeed, much of the parenting role is functional. For an infant, the functional role involves feeding, changing diapers, bathing, and generally providing for the child. For an eight-year-old, it’s getting homework done. And for a fifteen-year-old, it’s setting and enforcing a responsible curfew.
Both roles—emotional and functional—are critical. One without the other is damaging for the child.
So if a mother loves her child emotionally but neglects the functional role, that child is at risk of not maturing into a responsible adult. Similarly, if she performs the functional role but doesn’t love her child emotionally, that same child is at risk of having long-term emotional problems.
Indeed, emotional and functional parenting roles go hand in hand. It’s not healthy to emphasize one at the cost of the other.
Parents also need to understand that the amount of emotional versus functional requirements change as the child grows older. As a child gets older, the parent needs to play more and more of a functional role and less of an emotional role in their child’s life. This is a hard lesson for parents who want to be their child’s “friend.”
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 for that child that the child may not like. For example, parents need to set limits with their child, 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 roles as a parent.
In any case, 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. Find a fifty-year-old. Find a thirty-five-year-cold. But don’t look for a ten-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a five-year-old.
Don’t Criticize Your Child’s School or Teacher In Front of Him
If parents think teachers are in error, they should keep that to themselves and their peers and deal with the school directly.
For example, if you think the teacher’s an idiot for not letting your child chew gum in the room, you can be your kid’s best friend and agree with him and say, “That’s a stupid rule and that teacher’s a jerk.”
Or you can be a functional and effective parent and say this:
“Boy, I disliked that rule when I was in school too. But I had to follow the rules.”
Two different responses—and both empathize with the child. The first response, calling the teacher a jerk, makes your child a confidant, which is ineffective. But the second response teaches him the importance of following rules.
Remember this: if you punch holes in authority figures, thinking you’re being a confidant with your kid, don’t be surprised when he disrespects that authority figure. Or when he disrespects you. And then if you give him consequences for that disrespect, he’s 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 the fact is, 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, but even certain minor ones, have to be made by you, the parent.
At the end of the day, kids have to understand that the family moves as a unit and the adults make the decisions.
Don’t Share Too Much With Your Child
I think you can share some things with a child without turning him 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 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. And it develops in him a way of looking at the world that is anxious and unhealthy.
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 tend to treat your child as a “friend,” you should understand this important fact 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, children and adults have quite different notions about what they should be doing. They have different notions about what’s right and wrong. They have different notions about what they want to do tonight. And they have different priorities. That’s appropriate and to be expected. And that’s not a recipe for a friendship. And if you try to force it, it causes unnecessary conflict and angst.
Leave Your Personal History Out of Your Parenting
Parents will overcompensate in an area of parenting in which they believe they lacked in their own upbringing.
For example, if you were wild and out-of-control you may be overly strict with your own child because you don’t want your child to take the same risks and make the same mistakes that you did. Or, if you were harshly punished, you may be overly lenient with your own child.
This is referred to as reaction formation by psychologists. In reaction to deficits you saw in your parents, you form a way of parenting that’s not healthy for you or your child. If your emotional needs weren’t met, you may overcompensate by trying to be your child’s friend. And that has harmful unintended consequences.
Indeed, you may think your child will like you more if you’re his friend. You may think he’ll trust you more. But here’s the problem. He may not respect your authority as a result. He may not listen to the word “no” because you never used it with him or taught him how to deal with it. He 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 to Separate From You
The goal of adolescence is for kids to separate from their parents. In psychology, we call this individuation. And it means your teen child will want to have a life separate from you. She’s becoming an individual. She may not want to share her life with you the way that she did in the past.
Understand that it’s important for your child to separate from you and become independent. You may not always approve of her 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 child. This 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 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. 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 certain teacher is for years and the child brings it up, you can’t simply come out and say “Don’t call that teacher a jerk anymore.” Rather, say this:
“I don’t think it helps us to label that teacher. Let’s figure out how you can handle this situation successfully.”
Friends will sit around and bad-mouth the teacher with their friends. It’s what they do. But a responsible parent will help their child solve the problem he’s 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 him what his father’s like, what he’s doing, and not doing. And the father’s telling him what his mom’s like, how she’s crazy, and how she’s controlling.
I’ve heard kids in divorced families say 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 most poisonous thing is that what the parents are saying about each other may be true to some degree. And now the kid can see it. But he can’t react to it properly because he doesn’t have the maturity to do so.
These parents might point out defects in the other parent that are accurate. But the way they point them out—by treating the child as a confidant—empowers the child to attack that parent. It’s not right and you don’t want to put your child in that position.
Act Like a Responsible Friend to Your Child
I want to make an important point for you here. In the end, you can be friendly with your child—just not his confidant. The key is having a responsible friendship with your child.
You know the saying, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk?” Well, friends don’t let friends skip their homework. Friends don’t let friends make excuses for failure. Friends don’t let friends badmouth the teacher and defy the rules in the classroom.
That’s the type of friend you need to be to your child. It’s called being a responsible friend. A friend who holds you accountable, every time. That’s effective parenting.
About James Lehman, MSW
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.