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The Dangerous Trap Good Parents Fall Into

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“Mom had a rough day, sweetie. Can I get a hug?” Have you ever said that to one of your kids? It’s hard not to when their hugs are just so comforting. What about this one: “You know your sister likes to wander out the front door. When you saw that it was unlocked, why didn’t you lock it?”

In both of those scenarios, we’re putting pressure on the child to grow up too quickly, to take on a more mature role than he or she should. The first scenario is emotional parentification. The other is instrumental parentification. Emotional parentification is much more dangerous and is often done by well-meaning moms and dads. Here are 9 examples (I’ve done at least two!) and the reason why it’s so harmful.

Examples of Emotional Parentification

1. Asking a child what school he or she wants to attend
2. A single mom asking her teenage daughter to pick out an outfit for her date
3. The mom who is exhausted at the end of the day whose 9-year-old knows to pour her a glass of wine
4. Dads who rely on their sons for their recreation (The son might say to a friend, “I want to hang out, but my dad wants to watch the game and doesn’t have anyone else to watch it with.”)
5. The dad who is emotionally unavailable to his wife but very affectionate with their children
6. Parents who confide in their kids about issues in their marriage
7. When mom overspends at the mall and tells her daughter, “Don’t tell your father.”
8. When a boy is told he’s “the man of the house” after his father passes away
9. Asking your child to be the go-between for you and your ex-husband

Why Emotional Parentification Is Harmful

Emotional parentification messes with the emotional hierarchy of the relationship. Kids should be able to lean on their parents. If a parent is leaning back on the child, the child is bearing weight he or she shouldn’t have to bear. This robs a child of the ability to find emotional rest and ultimately leads to a delay in development. Yes—behaviors that encourage our kids to mature more quickly actually stall their growth.

Instrumental parentification, like having older kids cook meals for their siblings, is not as harmful when it’s being done for a short period of time (when Mom is sick), and it’s not the same thing as having assigned chores. But if the child’s responsibilities are what keep the home functioning, that can cause the child to struggle with self-esteem because the child is continually being tasked with chores that are beyond his or her ability. Both types of parentification rob children of their childhood.

How Well-Meaning Parents Do It

Parents think they have a particularly mature child who can be given agency (like example #1). But when a decision a kid made doesn’t work out, it’s on the kid, and this leads to heightened levels of anxiety. We think it’s healthy to show our kids they can handle an adult role, but if we do it too much, they can be made to feel like they have to stay in the role to keep balance or peace in the home.

What to Do to Fix It

Emotional parentification is easier to fix if you recognize the behavior in yourself, as opposed to seeing it in your child’s father. Find adult friends and lean on them. Apologize to your children and tell them you’ve made a mistake by giving them adult decisions to make. When you see your child stepping into that adult role, tell him or her, “Don’t worry. I will handle this. You focus on being a kid.”

If their dad is the one doing it, step one is to bring it up. We don’t know our blind spots. He might deny it or disagree, but at least he’ll be made aware. Then keep the dialogue open with your children about what you expect from them in their roles as the kids in the family.

I’ve done numbers one and nine on this list. Have you done any of these or another kind of emotional parentification?

ASK YOUR CHILD...

What does it mean to be responsible?

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