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When Parents Make Children Their Friend or Spouse

My mother, my mate.

Key points

  • Turning one's teenage child into a mate, friend, or equal is known as "parentifying" a child.
  • Sharing troubles with children (who don't have coping skills or life experience to deal with them) leaves them feeling hopeless and helpless.
  • A child who was trained to anticipate the needs of their parent will carry this trait into their adult relationships.

When my parents divorced, 30 years ago, my younger brother was the only one of us five kids yet to attend college. As the "only child" at home, my mother leaned on him heavily and, as so many lonely parents do, she turned him into her surrogate husband.

My brother spent the following three decades of his life anticipating and meeting my mother's needs. He even went so far as to move next door to her so that he could be close enough for her call, but also have a sense of separation, too. He had a wife and daughter who needed him at home, after all.

Making a child the stand-in for the spouse you lost, be it through divorce or death, is not unusual. It happens all the time.

From a family systems perspective, this dynamic makes perfect sense. When one member of the system leaves, another one will step in and take its place. This is nature's way of maintaining a sense of balance. The term for this phenomenon is "homeostasis."

Additionally, nature hates a vacuum so when a space as large as a mother or father becomes vacant, something or someone will unconsciously and automatically want to fill it.

Parents who are using their children to get their emotional needs met may believe that the new arrangement is a good one—they think that everyone benefits. They get their needs met and, as they see it, their children benefit because they will feel useful and loved. The adults may not realize that there are many more negative than positive impacts on children who are parentified.

Asking a child to play the role of an adult is a heavy burden. In many cases, troubles shared with children (who don't have the coping skills or life experience to know how to deal with them) leave the child feeling hopeless and helpless. Rather than augmenting a child's self-esteem, the constant feeling of futility can lead to lowered self-worth.

It's not only parents imposing this role on their children, some children see what is needed (or at least what they think is needed) and offer to fill the vacuum. For every story about a parent leaning too heavily on a child, there's one about a child who wants to be seen as "the man of the house now" or "Dad's caretaker."

How the Surrogate Spouse Role Impacts a Child's Adult Relationships

This level of parent-child enmeshment fosters unhealthy dependence. The child who was trained so well to anticipate the needs of his parent will, without awareness or intervention, carry this trait into his adult relationships.

The doting daughter and later doting wife may suppress her own needs and not speak her own truth in her marriage. This, in turn, leads her into toxic rages or an affair.

Because she was trained not to ask for what she needed, it never occurred to her to do so. Meanwhile, she merely had to state what she needed and her husband would have responded positively.

The doting son and later doting husband set himself up to be a doormat by pampering a partner who is happy to have a one-sided relationship.

People who suffer learned helpessness may become chronic under-earners and others with an over-inflated need to please may unconsciously turn into workaholics.

How to Avoid the Parentification Trap

Turning your teen into your mate, friend, or equal is known as "parentifying" your child; this is also referred to as Emotional Incest or Surrogate Spouse Syndrome. I can think of no circumstance where it is of any benefit to anyone in the long run.

It is unequivocally an indication that the adult in the family is not getting her needs met. Understanding the signs of parentification can prevent life-long damage to the children who otherwise have no choice but to be there for a needy parent.

Here are a few signs that you may be leaning too heavily on your son or daughter:

1. You forego plans with friends or peers to attend events with and for your child

2. You tell your child more about your marriage or divorce than you tell friends or peers

3. You don't go to therapy or seek professional help despite intense emotions because you have your child to lean on

4. You often tell your child how much they have helped you and that "you don't know what you'd do without them"

5. Your child foregoes plans with friends or peers to attend events with and for you

6. Your child asks questions about your marriage or divorce

If you have any of these dynamics in your parent-child relationship, my recommendation is that you seek professional support as soon as possible. You will get more adequate and appropriate help and your child will be able to have healthier, age-appropriate relationships.

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Suggested Reading:

Silently Seduced: When Parents Make their Children Partners, Understanding Covert Incest, by Kenneth M. Adams, Ph.D., Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, FL (1991)
The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do When a Parent's Love Rules Your Life, by Dr. Patricia Love

When He's Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment, Kenneth Adams and Alexander Morgan

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