Parenting Across the Gap

Raising teens in the 21st century

Your Child is Not Your BFF

Understanding how to be friendly without having to be a friend as a parent.

Get a real adult friend. Someone around your age and with whom you share things in common. Ugh!  I have heard this oh so many times from adolescents and young adults. There is a fine balance between being friendly with your child and being a friend. The "cool" dad or the "rocking" mom are stereotypes that seem to continue for generations, despite the embarrassment of teenagers.

On a more serious note, I have worked with many an adolescent who was Mom or Dad’s confidante, advisor, or party buddy. It is not an appropriate role for parents and leads to boundary confusion and unclear expectations. “My dad lets me smoke weed with him, because he doesn’t want me drinking,” is a common, yet more concerning case.

A better parenting scenario was shared with me by one of my adolescent students: “My dad told me that drinking, drugs, and smoking were never going to be okay with them. I thought they were psycho when my parents started talking to me about this when I was 10! The thing is, I knew I would be in major trouble if I did any of that &*#!, so it kept me from doing what my friends were doing.”

“I tell my daughter everything. We share everything, even sex. It’s so good to have a mother-daughter relationship like that.” Yeah, good for you, but probably not the best for your daughter.

Another mother shared a healthier approach and gave me permission to tell others what she said: “Hey, I have talked about sex with my daughter ever since she asked me where babies come from, but I tried to answer her questions in a way that she could understand based on her age. I want her to have the information she needs to make healthy decisions. It isn’t always fun for either one of us, but we talk about these things. She knows I am okay with talking about sex, and she has been open about it with me. Learning all about ‘hooking up’ wasn’t fun for me, but at least I have a better understanding of what she and her peers are dealing with.”

I commended this mother for going beyond her level of comfort and having the difficult conversations with her daughter. Besides clarifying parental expectations about sex, love, "hooking up," and relationships, it was a great experiment for the mother in how to under-react while sharing her values and concerns.

Divorced Parents

I see the “My kid is my BFF” situation all too often in divorced families, where Mom or Dad uses their child as a confidante or for emotional support. This burdens children and can get in the way of their own work. It can also lead to manipulation and splitting behavior (trying to set one person against the other), when an adolescent tries to get his or her needs met and one parent doesn’t agree.

I don’t know what’s happened to parenting in recent decades and why parents struggle with the boundary between parenting and being a friend. The rearing of a child requires authority, compassion, care, and love, but especially guidance. So many parents I work with are terrified of giving their child advice that may not work. Let that go! I am a licensed, experienced mental health professional, and I give bad advice and disappoint children and teenagers all the time. Many parents are so concerned with not being the strict disciplinarians that their parents were, that they overcompensate by trying to be friends with their children. This is unhealthy.

If you find yourself, in a good or bad mood, depending upon your child, feeling overly stressed and lonely when he or she is going away from you for some period of time, or if you feel the need to communicate with your child many times a day, it is a sign of your neediness. Neediness becomes unattractive, as evidenced by needy people in friendships or emotional relationships. Be careful about using your children to fulfill your own emotional needs. If you are questioning whether you do this, in many cases you probably are, but ask the teenager about it. It is understandable that we often vent our frustrations or happiness to those around us, but we need to have an awareness of when doing so causes more distress to the listener than it does to support the complainer. I do not encourage you to bottle up your emotions and put on a happy face all the time, but also do not think that a child (adult or adolescent) always needs to know the details of your emotional life. 

Fred Peipman, Ph.D., is a therapist in San Francisco and Palo Alto and author of Parenting Across the Gap: Raising Teens in the 21st Century.

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