The damage we do to our children when we ask of them to make our emotional wellbeing their responsibility.
Now, we do not do this consciously. We do it because, well, they are there, and they already love us, and they recognise that perhaps we were not treated well by our spouse. And they love us. And just like we want our children to be happy, they want us to be happy.
It happens very often when our relationships go wrong with our spouse. We share our problems with our child – you know, we just bounce something off them. It begins with small things, and we see that our child supports our view.
For example. We may just mention that we are taking strain financially and how hard it is for us to keep all the wheels turning. Our child offers a sympathetic ear and, bless them, offer us their pocket money. This we feel as deeply supportive and we may even relate this generosity to our friends. BUT… the underlying emotion that comes up for us is that we feel supported.
And it is true – our child does support us. BUT IT IS NOT THEIR JOB. This responsibility is far to great for our child. Their priority should be to go to school and be focussed on friends, academics, sport, etc. It is not their job to worry about finances or their parents. Parents worry about children.
Children should be confident that their parents have this thing called life, handled. I am not suggesting that we cannot have a discussion with our children that we are going through a tough time financially and that we need to cut back – yet reassure our child that we have the situation under control.
It becomes more stressful for the child if we begin to share the relationship problems we have with our spouse with them.
The child then begins to feel that they must support us in our difficulties with their other parent. The child loves us and is willing to support us and often does so by offering emotional support and comfort.
Very soon, they begin to feel responsible for our emotional wellbeing – a role that should be filled by our spouse. It becomes more tragic when BOTh parents are bouncing emotional stuff off the child and this becomes a juggling act for the child, depending on which parent the child is currently with.
I am also not suggesting that this is in any way a physical thing. I am NOT discussing sexuality in any way.
I am only talking about emotional support. It is a very subtle thing. If our relationship with our spouse is not what it should be, a child will step up and fill the emotional gap without us even recognising the subtle burden we are placing on them. We do the child a disservice because the child has to decide who is right and who is wrong in the relationship between their parents. The relationship between the parents has nothing to do with the child.
Their DNA is 50% mom and 50% dad and asking a child to subtly choose which parent is right or wrong places a huge burden on the child and has to, in effect, say that the part of themselves that emanated from the wrong parent is also somehow damaged or wrong. I notice that a child has begun to take emotional responsibility when the child begins to take on the mannerisms of a spouse. A child might mention that we are not wearing matching clothes or suggests a wardrobe update. Perhaps our child asks us what special meal we would like them to prepare for us. Or perhaps we can’t wait to share a special experience we are having at work with our child.
We feel validated if they praise us when we have excelled at something.
This spirals out of control and when I see couples out and about and the daughter gets all the father’s attention and the mother tags along, it may mean the child has stepped into a prominent protective role. Or the son gets all the mother’s attention and the dad just tags along. If the children are the centre of attention all the time and the spouse becomes a tag along, we are doing our children the biggest disservice.
We are teaching them how to have dysfunctional relationships.
We all know how this feels when we have parents that demand this of us. Many of us have parents whose emotional wellbeing seems to be in our hands. As adults, we know how exhausting this is. Imagine how detrimental it is to our smaller children. Our children will always step up and give us what we need to feel whole. But is it not their job. Their job is to be a child. And our job is to be the parent.
Our children need parents – not best friends. Our children are not responsible for our emotional wellbeing. Later in life this becomes a huge problem if a child has taken on the responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of their parent. Neither the parent nor the adult child will be able to have a fully committed romantic relationship with anybody else.
They are committed to each other and may even feel betrayed if another party begins to have an emotional connection with either of them. This is a very complex bond to break. If we are in an emotionally dependent relationship with our parent or adult child, we will not be able to have a functional relationship with anybody else until we separate our emotional attachment with our child/parent.
That does not mean that we stop loving our child/parent. It just means that we reconnect with our child/parent in the appropriate way. This is quite something to achieve though, and this is often a big problem with second marriages, or if our little girl gets married.
She can’t fully commit to her husband until she gets emotionally divorced from her parent. If she is still invested in her relationship with her parent – be that her father or her mother, she will continue to seek most of her emotional support from that parent and continue to fret about that parent’s happiness, rather than bond with her own spouse and let him become her support structure. This will make the spouse feel like he is in competition with his wife’s family. We all know how that pans out.
It is the same with sons. They are not “mommy’s boys”. They stood in for their father when he was emotionally unavailable or absent and simply see it as their responsibility. A child will always side with the parent they believe has been wronged and will fill the emotional space left by the parent who is no longer there.
I am often concerned when a parent says their child is their best friend. I just know where that stems from. It is sad and it happens all the time. That does not mean that one can not have a healthy, friendly relationship with one’s child. Certainly not. But if your child is your best friend – there is often a problem.