The Type of Childhood Emotional Abuse We Don’t Talk About
Many well-meaning parents tend to overshare what’s going on in their personal lives with their kids — whether it’s by telling them about their most recent conflict at work or complaining about issues at home with their partner.
Continuously confiding in your child can be damaging to their long-term emotional well-being. And while an isolated incident of rehashing a bad day at work won’t cause harm, regularly discussing adult problems the way you would with a peer, forces children into inappropriate parenting roles similar to that of proxy therapists or surrogate spouses.
“Children should not be serving the intimate needs of a parent, or placed in the role of secret-keeper,” says Lisa M. Hooper, a researcher and professor at the University of Louisville, who has conducted extensive studies on the effects of parentification — when the parent projects their role onto the child. In divorced families, for instance, parents can fall into the trap of relying on their kid as a “confidant” — by revealing private information in the way of venting about the father/mother, or by having them mediate conflicts.
Hooper notes that “when a child starts serving as a friend to the parent, and the parent is getting his or her needs met through the child — that becomes problematic.”
Her research has shown that the effects of childhood parentification can be long-lasting and multigenerational. The researchers found that people who experienced early parentification are at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance misuse as an adult.
“Parents and caregivers ought to be at the top of the hierarchy in the family system,” says Hooper. A father who constantly asks his son for relationship advice or complains to him about other family members, for instance, is inverting the role of adult and child, because he’s relying on his kid to provide the same kind of emotional support normally sought from a trusted friend or spouse.
And while it’s true that children who take on more adultlike roles can have positive outcomes, such as a strong work ethic, resiliency, and self-efficacy — when taken to the extreme, you’ll start to see kids anxiously caring for others, compulsively overworking, and striving to juggle their responsibilities at school with their role of confidant at home.
Despite good intentions, learning where to draw the line can be especially tricky for parents who want to be seen as their child’s “best friend.”
The result is a stolen childhood.
In many cases, it’s because they have their own history of attachment issues caused by growing up with distant, rigid, or neglectful caregivers — and now tend to overcompensate by becoming overly involved in their kid’s life.
“Friendship is reciprocal, based on a mutual sharing of equanimity and equality,” says Fraga, another researcher. And children simply don’t possess the same emotional maturity and understanding that adults do. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be loving and caring — but that you distinguish between being honest and supportive with also maintaining appropriate boundaries.
“Some people tend to see their children not as separate beings, but merely as extensions of themselves,” she adds. “They don’t have the filter to understand that their kid is 7, not 37.”
“As adults, children who have been parentified tend to lack confidence and [have] an inability to believe that they can think their way through the simplest of life’s problems,” notes Fraga. “It can really eclipse a person’s ability to receive and to be loved as adults, because it’s too dangerous to let someone in when you’ve been crashed into.”
In his book, “Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child,” author Gregory Jurkovic wrote that children who take on parental roles during their formative years are later plagued by interpersonal distrust, ambivalence, involvement in harmful relationships, and a destructive sense of entitlement as adults.
“Boundaries should be able to be flexible, and expand and contract based on what is age-appropriate,” says Hooper. It’s fine for parents to share daily happenings with their kids, but essentially, it comes down to sharing information according to a child’s development, and no more than what they can deal with.
Ultimately, responsible parenting isn’t synonymous with holding back or showing indifference, but an ability to differentiate between where you end and your child begins.