Telling Your Children Too Much: The Danger of Role Reversals

“My children are the most important thing in my life.” I know you have heard that before. You might well have said it yourself, believe it, feel it, and it might be true.

But are you injuring them anyway?

What I’m talking about here is the tendency to confide in children; to tell them things that they shouldn’t have to hear.

Such as?

Feelings of depression and loneliness, criticism of your spouse, and details of your sex life (whether good or bad).

Questions to them about how you should handle your relatives and friends. Disclosures of insecurity about your abilities or your appearance.

Why not talk about these things?

First, you are the parent, not a friend. Even when we are older, we want to see our parents as people who are capable, strong, reliable, confident, and who will always be there. As children of whatever age, we want to know we can, in a pinch, go to our parents — count on their wisdom, and depend on their honor. We really don’t want parents to be friends, although it is good if they are friendly. We shouldn’t have to “take care” of the parent’s emotional life, serve as a confessor or a therapist; or function as a go-between for one parent in order for one alleged adult to get along better with the other nominal authority figure in the house.

Our children shouldn’t come to feel we are an emotional burden on them, the one who needs parenting rather than the other way around.

If our progeny are to separate from us, become independent, create healthy families of their own, take good care of themselves, and navigate the white water of twenty-first century life, it does not help them to take on the parenting role of their own parents.

I have known children who were required by one parent to retrieve the other from a neighborhood saloon. I have known children who were expected to accompany one parent on her detective work in an attempt to discover whether her spouse was cheating on her. I’ve known kids who were told to ask for the child support (much too common), expected to mix the parent’s favorite alcoholic beverage, smoke pot with mom, lie to the other parent, or cover dad’s money mismanagement; and when older, double-date with a divorced parent and take over the job of being the isolated parent’s social life.

It is usually the mom, not the dad, who cries on the child’s shoulder, gives too much information, and creates the emotional burden for the child. Dads are less likely, even today, to talk about their emotions and their weaknesses and insecurities. A father’s stoicism can be a problem for a child, but not usually in this particular way. Nor are fathers as likely to compete with mothers for a child’s attention, interest, and camaraderie.

Instead, when dads become a burden it is usually a consequence of their misbehavior, addiction,  or life failures. Regardless, neither parent should communicate that the child must “choose sides” or take over the psychological role of a spouse, because one parent is estranged from the other and needs support. While such parent-child relationships are not frankly incestual in a physical sense, they can be emotionally incestual and contaminating, fraught with a sense of something not right and a feeling of complicity in the usurpation and betrayal of a much-loved guardian.

Even after childhood is over, we still prefer our parents to be bigger than life, ideal models capable of solving any problem, all deriving from the same instincts that caused us to say “My dad is better than your dad” when we were little. Of course, as adults we know it isn’t true.

A funny story: my dad told his three sons (when all of us were still small) he’d been a famous Chicago Cubs pitcher, but somehow, quite mysteriously, all record of this time in the Major Leagues had been lost! Moreover, he’d been so reliable, hard-working, and constant that he could pitch nearly every day. And so, his teammates came to call him “Rain or Shine Milt Stein.”

Soon enough we realize stories like this are not true. Soon enough we become aware our parents do not embody the perfect mix of human qualities. Eventually, we see that our elders have failures of judgment, imperfections of mood, and suffer from doubts and worries just like everyone else. We realize even our parents cannot protect us from heartbreak, failure, and injury. Soon enough we see them aging and grasp they will not be around forever, and might even come to a point when they cannot fully care for themselves. Life reduces everything to size sooner or later.

If you are a parent, don’t accelerate this process; know that your children need protection not just from the outside world, but from you — from your intimacies and personal problems and sleepless nights just as much as they need their own privacy and the permission to fail, to learn, and to grow on their own — to come into their own and own their lives, not to be hostage to your judgment, your worries about them, or worries about you due to an invitation or requirement to know you too well.

A parent is a guardian and a custodian, not an owner; a loving authority, not a buddy. A child is not on the planet for the purpose of fulfilling your life, but rather, to fulfill his own.

Your life is your job, not that of your offspring.

One of the greatest favors a parent can do for a child is to take good care of himself or herself both physically and emotionally, not expecting anyone else to achieve that result for him (or worry about the fact it is not being adequately accomplished). And yes, this means even such things as eating well, following medical advice, and making oneself as physically fit as possible.

How important are your children to you? Not in words, but in deeds — in the way you relate to them and the care you take of yourself?

If you haven’t put your words into action, might it be time to start?

(The reproduction at the top of this page is Rembrandt’s Young Woman Sleeping)

7 thoughts on “Telling Your Children Too Much: The Danger of Role Reversals

  1. Thank you so much for this. It has helped me sort out some issues of mine.

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  2. Can you tell me of any books that can help me with this? My mother confided in me during my entire childhood about my father;s sex addiction and just, everything in general. It really has effected me and I have a lot of resentment towards her about this, I really need to seek counseling but also, if you could recommend a book? Thank you for posting this. Ironically, I got a master’s degree in counseling. I was the “therapist” at home.

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    • The book that comes to mind is called “The Drama of the Gifted Child” by Alice Miller. I would suggest that you read some of the Amazon reviews before you get it. There may be others that are less evocative of emotional reactions.

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  3. Not only do I see where both of my parents confided intimate details, moods, needs, shared way too much & leaned on us, but I can’t help wonder how I’ve damaged my kids. As always, concisely written & helpful. Thank you.

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    • drgeraldstein

      You are welcome, but do remember that no parents are perfect and neither are you or I. It is the repeated errors of parents in sharing too much that makes injury more likely.

      Like

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