Twelve-year-old Jessie knows how her dad, Sam, feels about her grandmother, Sam’s mother-in-law. Exactly how he feels. “I think she’s great, but my dad always talks about how judgmental, critical, and demanding she is,” says Jessie. “Sometimes I guess she makes my mom feel bad. Whenever she’s coming for a visit, my dad gets stressed out.” Most times, Sam says, he uses a joking tone when bashing his mother-in-law. Other times, he admits, he is straight-up biting.
We’re always hearing about children and teenagers who share too much: with their friends; with their parents; online, with the world. But what happens when it’s Mom and Dad dabbling in TMI? How do we know how much—and what sort of—information our kids can handle?
Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the rest of social media, we have quickly grown accustomed to the concept of over sharing. Revealing the most mundane details of our daily lives—not to mention our formerly private innermost thoughts—feels normal to us; it’s what people do. But this lack of boundaries has also resulted in a generation of mothers and fathers who share too much with their kids, from too-early talks about sex to what we really think about the neighbor, the high school math teacher, or Grandma.
Part of this tendency stems from a desire to be close to, and connect with, our children. We think that sharing secrets, or interacting with kids as we might other adults, breeds a level of intimacy. In some ways, it does: Sharing some personal information with your child is necessary in order to build trust. But children aren’t meant to play the role of confidante to their parents. They’re not meant to be your sounding board, and they can’t process information in the same way you do. You might have spotted the school principal last weekend hitting on a woman that wasn’t his wife. But that’s news for you—and not your kids—to deal with.
That’s because kids, even older ones, aren’t intellectually or emotionally prepared to shoulder the burden of TMI. They don’t have the capacity to try to figure out how they should react—or why—to what you’re telling them. What’s more, they’re terrible at keeping secrets. You can say, “Dad and I are having an argument.” You can’t say, “I think your father is having an affair.” Similarly, it’s okay to tell a child, “We can’t afford that” if you can’t. But not “I just don’t know how we’re going to pay the mortgage this month.”
Jenna and Bart divorced when their son, Luke, was a baby. Bart has remarried; Jenna has not. And she’s told 8-year-old Luke that she never will, a statement he’s since repeated to most anyone who asks about his mother. Perhaps Jenna’s confiding in Luke was a way of differentiating herself from Bart, the “bad parent” who had left. Or maybe it was just something she wanted to share. At 8, however, Luke is too young to know how to process this information, and what it means to him.
Divorced parents will frequently use over sharing when competing for a child’s affections, which puts the child in the middle. (This can happen even when both parents aren’t outwardly bashing the other, just as it can happen between parents who are still married.) At times, Luke will tell Bart that he is unable to play with him because “Mommy says you lie.” Katie was a 15-year-old who told me she couldn’t live with her mother because she was “passive aggressive and controlling.” Those were words she got from her father, and they were words that Katie used against her mother, especially as she got older. One day, she would also use those words against her dad.
Here, we see how over sharing can disrupt the natural order of the parent-child dynamic. When you make your child your confidante, you’re sending the message that you and she make decisions together. This, of course, is not true. While you should encourage your child to assert her opinion, you, as parent, make decisions—even minor ones. Too much information leads a child to believe that he or she has a role in the decision making, reducing your authority and skewing your child’s view of the world and how things work.
It’s easy to think that by telling your child things, he will, in turn, tell you things. Sometimes that’s the case. More often, it’s not. What’s more, it’s important for kids to individuate from their parents—and important for parents to learn to let their kids do that. Many parents use over sharing to try to halt this very necessary process. But kids aren’t our friends; they are still learning to be friends to others. It’s important that you provide that model. To do that, give your kids enough information to meet their age-appropriate needs, and to keep them safe. They don’t need to be freaked out, worried, or caught in the middle between adults. They’re kids. Don’t take that away from them.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com