“My 16-year-old daughter and I are best friends,” boasts a single mom, divorced for three years. “When I’m having a bad day, she’s always there for me. When she’s down, I like that she comes to me first for help. I’m really lucky.” This sounds good on the surface, but is it really healthy? No, say most parenting experts. The danger in fostering this kind of relationship with a child may not be evident in the younger years, but as kids enter their late teen years, parental friendships can cause teens undue emancipation issues. It also may make it particularly difficult for a parent to distinguish their role of parent from that of friend during a time when their child may desperately need the parent to set appropriate boundaries. Single parents are especially prone to befriending their children, especially after the pain of a divorce or estrangement from the other parent. Feelings of loneliness, rejection and sadness may cause a parent to reach out emotionally to those closest to them. Although this is a natural reaction to pain, parents who “marry” their children, hoping to replace marital loneliness, may find it difficult to assert their power when kids need it most. Children of divorce are also vulnerable to this idea of attaching in an unhealthy way to one or both parents. It is not uncommon for them to go through a post-divorce grieving process, which includes the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. During the bargaining stage, especially between the ages of 9-12, kids are prone to feel they are somehow responsible for the divorce or for their parent’s pain, and they may attempt to take action to either get their parents back together or to alleviate conflict and pain in the household. They may develop, for instance, a hypersensitivity to their parents’ negative emotions and may react by being especially attentive or play the “good” child in an attempt to keep conflict at a minimum. Young girls, for example, may feel they have to console their fathers, or young boys may feel they have to be the “man of the house” in the absence of the father. All of these behaviors may seem sweet and caring from a parent’s perspective, but if encouraged, the parent-child relationship could become horizontal, more like a friendship or marriage, compromising the necessary vertical relationship that will help a child move healthily into adulthood. There is no question that developing a close, highly communicative relationship with a child is necessary for parents who want to raise safe and healthy children. So how, then, do you keep it loving, but appropriate? Here are a few tips:
1. You are here to take care of your child’s feelings — they are not here to take care of yours. If you have emotional needs, get them met through your friends, adult family members, a counselor or clergy member. Any time you rely on your kids to meet your emotional needs, you are treading on dangerous ground. Make their emotional needs your business, but remember that your needs are not their responsibility.
2. Don’t compromise your good parenting skills in order to be friends with your kids. They want boundaries even if they act like they don’t. If you maintain a clear distinction between parent and child, they will always know what is expected of them and that they are accountable to you (not the other way around).
3. Divorce your children and let them be kids! If you become too emotionally dependent on your children, you may set them up for feeling guilty when they spend time away from you. They may forego spending important time with their peer group or in normal adolescent activities out of fear that you will not be OK without them. This will either delay their development into adulthood or cause resentment and rebellion later — neither of which will be helpful to either of you in the long run.
DIANE CHAMBERS SHEARER is a divorce mediator, parent educator, and author of ‘Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families’. Her URL is: www.nofight.com.