Our children and the way they grow up is usually precious to us and mostly as parents, we try to do the right thing. This is despite the fact that the “right thing” might not have been done to us as children. Children are like sponges and they soak up everything in the environment around them, good or bad. Many well-meaning parents tend to over-share their own issues with their children, whether it is about a conflict at work, a problem in the family or a dire financial issue. This is sometimes not done directly but in earshot of the child through conversation with others.
While one such incident will not damage a child’s development, repeated discussions about adult issues will push the child into attempts to parent their parent, be a pseudo therapist or a surrogate spouse, none of which they are supposed to be as children. When a child’s natural development is shunted forward and the boundaries between childhood and adulthood dropped too soon, issues arise that could lead to addiction, inappropriate relationships, depression and anxiety. Children need to gradually grow into adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it. Part of this gradual growth is the natural learning of developmental age-appropriate boundaries and behaviour.
Lisa M. Hooper, a researcher and professor at the University of Louisville, who has conducted extensive studies on the effects of parentification said recently in the Washington Post that:
“Children should not be serving the intimate needs of a parent, or placed in the role of secret-keeper, 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. Parents and caregivers ought to be at the top of the hierarchy in the family system” says Hooper. A parent who constantly asks children for relationship advice or complains to them about other family members, for instance, is inverting the role of adult and child, because they are relying on the child to provide the same kind of emotional support normally sought from a trusted friend or spouse. »
In terms of child development, most aware parents would naturally know not to talk about big issues around young children (in my experience, however, this is not a given). As the child grows, the boundaries become a little more elastic and can often blur the lines between what is appropriate and what not. We have all seen, heard or experienced seeing young children being in the middle of a heated argument or an emotional exchange between parents. This is never positive for a child’s development and could have the effect of making the child feel insecure or even taking responsibility for the turmoil, in its own mind. This is one of the main reasons children acquire toxic shame, one of the drivers of codependency in relationships.
With older children, it is right to talk to them about things that are going to affect them personally but this should be done with developmental and emotional needs in mind. Children of any age should never be asked for advice in these circumstances and if the choice is made to discus, it should be done to inform not vent. Children should never be used to score points or used as a pawn between parents. This can be extremely damaging to the child’s developmental needs at any age. Whatever the issue, children of any age should be supported by both parents and communication channels left open.
Children at any age will have enough issues and just enough mental energy to navigate the developmental stage they are in. Anything on top of this causes overwhelm for the growing mind. Children look to parents as role models to handle issues as they arise and will learn to handle them properly if the parent is sensitive to this and aware. Imagine the problem when the extra issues come from the very people children look to for support. Interaction with children concerning any adult issue should be with the thought in mind to help them acquire the skill set and empathy needed to deal with inevitable adult problems, when they become adults. Let’s look at three sensitive subjects that parents should never talk to children about:
- Marital problems: Sounds fairly obvious but children are often caught up in the middle when things go wrong. Some parents use their children to alienate their spouse in a move aimed at revenge. Children’s development can be devastated by the thought that their parents are separating and will often take the blame. Dwelling on the fact that divorce and separation might happen can cause children to have various forms of anxiety. Children should never be used as a means to vent and should never hear dirty laundry. In the event of separation, children should be given consistent reassurance that they are loved and that will remain the case.
- Negative feelings about others and them: Many clients have expressed to me that their parent was “a friend” to them and had seen this as positive: “We shared everything, talked about everything”, they often say. This would include the parent’s feelings about other people in the family and beyond. While the child may feel special and privileged to be an “ear” for the parent, this is information a child should never hear. Do your child a favor and keep this to yourself. Additionally, avoid being critical of the child concerning natural developmental issues like appearance. Many clients have expressed (especially women) how parents had commented negatively about aspects of appearance and weight. Parents will often comment about their children to others which might upset that particular relationship.
- Your own issues and problems: Children put parents on a pedestal and believe that the people raising them have it altogether. Shattering that image by discussing your problems with them will make them insecure and initiate a process of parenting the parent, one of the main causes of codependency. Your self-doubt about yourself, your life and the people in it should never be discussed with a child. That is not to say that times when adversity has been overcome, it can’t be discussed generally in terms of resilience and problem-solving. Teach your children to treat such situations with confidence in their ability to do so, rather than using them as a therapist.
A parent’s job is to prepare their children for the adult world, proving them with the tools and strategies to do so. Parents can do this by modeling appropriate behaviour and leaving open channels of discussion. While it might be tempting to express feelings in front of a child, a child should never be used to vent or words used that might alienate them from others at any time. Be careful about topics discussed and if this discussion is needed, keep things general and use the discussion as a method of teaching appropriate approaches. Keep strong opinions about others and strong topics out of conversation with children. Keep these to yourself or talk with other adults about them. Your child will thank you for it later.