Years ago, I was scheduled to see a six-year-old boy who was about to be thrown out of his second Chicago school. I tried to imagine what a six-year-old could have done to get himself into so much trouble at such a young age.

I did not have to wait long. The answer came flying through my office door. Derek exploded into the room. He began exploring my office by yanking books off the shelves and onto the floor. After jumping on my couch, he headed over to my desk. I glanced at his mother and grandmother to gauge their reaction to all this mayhem. They were unphased.

“Please sit down, Derek,” I began.

After introducing myself to his family, I asked Derek to tell me about himself. He immediately jumped up and stood on my couch, put his hands on his hips with a swagger, and boomed: “This is my mom and grandma. I have no dad and I am the MAN of the house.”

I have to admit, it was quite a spectacle. I peered over to his mom, who was smiling proudly. Then I looked back at Derek and said, “Derek, you are no man. You are a six-year-old little boy.”

In an instant, all the big-boy bravado faded and he quietly shrunk down into the couch, deflated—but simultaneously relieved.

No child should ever be “the man of the house.” Parents need to be emotional grown-ups so that kids can get to be kids. It is way too burdensome for a child to have to be the grown-up. They don’t have the skills. They can’t even reach the sink or tie their shoe. They’re too young to take care of themselves, much less to take care of you.

But kids are highly intuitive, and when the wounds of their parents become visible, children will try to rescue their parents. A child unconsciously thinks, Let me care for her, so that maybe she will get around to caring for me. A child feels responsible for shoring up a parent’s emotional well-being. Or, in Derek’s case, filling a vacant role. This is the stuff that prevents children from fully depending on their parents. They don’t get to be children who rely on a strong, safe mom or dad. If you skip that phase, the road to real emotional independence is blocked. Dependency must come first. Derek needs to be a boy before he can be a real man.

One divorced woman at an outpatient clinic told me, “When I come home from work, my son (age five) rubs my feet and pours me lemonade. Isn’t that sweet?”

Shrink says: not so much.

Your child is not your friend, your masseuse, or your confidant. You could almost see that boy asking, “How was your day, honey? Would you like me to draw you a bath?” He so strongly felt his mother’s need to be cared for that he stepped up and did it. But he is just a little fella, and his shoulders can’t really support her weight. When children take on the caregiving role, they never just relax and get taken care of themselves. The roles get inverted. That puts them on guard and builds up their defenses. If they do not have nurturing parents, they cannot let themselves be vulnerable, and the loss of vulnerability is a loss of our true selves. This is how kids start to grow heart armor.

But wait, you might think, it’s reciprocal. The mom also comforts the child when he needs her. That’s probably true. But relationships at a child’s early stage of development should not be reciprocal. Parenting is not “I’ll rub your feet, you rub mine.” When ducklings imprint, they follow their mom around. Mama ducks don’t follow back.

“Being a parent is not transactional. We don’t get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor: we are good parents not so they will be loving enough to stay with us, but so they will be strong enough to leave us.”—Anna Quindlen, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

In order for our children to grow independent, they must be first allowed to exhale into emotional dependency. If they acutely feel your need, they will not have that opportunity. The roles will become reversed. Kids are perceptive. If they see their parent in need, they will play the role of caregiver.

But this comes at a great price. When a parent’s needs reign supreme, they take up all the air in the room. The child might seem like a little adult, but internally his development gets stunted while he is emotionally tending to his parents. He’s so aware of their needs that he has to swallow his own.

If a child continually swallows his own needs, he will grow further and further away from his own vulnerability and authentic self. When you get away from your true self, you lose access to your full range of emotions and start erecting a false self that protects you from more pain. This is the opposite of self-esteem. This is my bread and butter as a psychiatrist, excavating the true self that was buried—buried to survive childhood.

About the Author

Robin Berman, M.D.
Robin Berman, M.D., is a psychiatrist and associate professor at UCLA.

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