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)

14 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.

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  4. What you described here is what I was trying to study independently. I was curious about a word that came up when looking at sibling literature, namely, parentification. I had never heard of the word until about 2016. When I read its various definitions and connected theories, as well as law reviews that included the term in family and child welfare courts, I became even more curious. Parentification is what you are discussing here. One destructive form of it is through parent-child role reversal, or in family systems terms, an inverted hierarchy. Spousification is another destructive form when the child acts like the confidant or companion to their parent, and offering more than condolences. Spousification is probably the worst forms of parentification because the child fulfills the role of the spouse with their parent, a more flattened hierarchy that requires adultification (growing or maturing before your time) and exacts much loss (loss of autonomy, childhood, self). A child is not meant to be exploited like that. These are forms of maltreatment, including both emotional abuse and neglect. The hardest part about these forms of abuse and neglect is recognizing that the benevolent rewards earned in exchange of denying your own childhood is not always perceived as maltreatment – by either the parent or the child. The child becomes enmeshed with the needs of the parent and lost to their own needs as a child, but at the same time the child feels love or pseudo-love when manipulated by the parent to reciprocate affection. The child is confused with why his or her own needs are not met through such emotional incest that appears affectionate yet wrong. This parent-child boundary dissolution is as harmful, in my opinion, as verbal abuse (another form of emotional abuse, but more overtly vile). I never considered myself parentified, adultified, or infantilized until I read Jurkovic’s and Chase’s books (I forgot the years, but I think they were 1997 and 1999, respectively). There was even a chapter on dissociation in Chase’s book, which made sense to me. Anyway, I thought I would comment here to list even more resources that others could read on the subject, though these books are written more for clinicians than laymen. I learned more about the topic as I read your blog just now, Dr. S.

    The hard questions in child welfare settings will always be concerning whether or not to remove the child when parentification is detected. Some answers depend on the national status, socioeconomic status, mental health status, and physical health status of the parent in question. Of course substance abuse and parentification are highly correlated, but so are parentification and the other variables. Sibling-focused parentification, according to recent research by Hooper and her colleagues, have shown different outcomes than parent-focused parentification and its subtypes. The vast majority of research shows that parent-child role reversal and Spousification as a flattened hierarchy both produce worse outcomes when compared to sibling-focused parentification. Sibling-focused includes babysitting your siblings. Although that may be beneficial for younger siblings, it may not be so beneficial for the older parentified sibling. But the siblings are not the problem; the parent-child role confusion that brought about sibling-focused parentification is the problem.

    But when siblings are deemed as having a parentified member in their group, CW professionals often separate them, which emerging research now shows how damaging that could be to sibling relationships, and it sends a message to the parentified child that their brave efforst to raise their siblings when, say, an intoxicated parent could not, was “their fault” and a non-nosological “mental illnes.” Law reviews have shown this argument, and the results have been mixed concerning not only legal outcomes concerning custody and foster care, but also outcomes related to expert witnesses, most notably, psychologists. When testimonies and legal outcomes are mixed, it makes it more challenging for policymakers and mandatory reporters.

    Retrospectively, however, adults who have been parentified, myself included, suffer. Many of them do not even know why they are suffering, but they do know that their childhood was robbed from them. It is painful.

    Thank you for shedding light on this important but less discussed topic.

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  5. You’re welcome, Dr. S, and thank you for taking the time to read and reply to my comment. The truth is, on a personal level, I gave my daughter up for adoption, in part, for the reason that I didn’t want to parentify her. I didn’t know what psychology entailed, and years ago I had failed an intro to psych course (primarily because I dropped out of college in my early 20s and failed to fill out the proper paperwork for a withdrawal. Who would have thought that nearly 20 years later I would ace such a course and all of my psych courses as a psych major? Anyway, when I tried to work independently on this research initially, and then with very limited help from my now ex-mentor, a lot of mental-emotional processing came up concerning my daughter. It was painful for me to do this research and this topic, but I was already invested. I tried to explain this to my then mentor at the time, as if to look for permission to abandon this topic (which I eventually did), but it turned into something different.

    I pressed on with my research and futile attempts at writing drafts and looking for an angle to define “adaptive sibling-focused parentification,” as a subset of the adaptive parentification Jurkovic (1997) speaks about. But the more I looked into this, the more I self-reflected on bad a mother I was or could have been. The data show that parents with mental illnesses are barriers, and working as a research assistant in child welfare only increased my self-awareness about (a) the correct decision I made to give my daughter up for adoption all on my own because I wanted her to be raised in a healthy way and not suffer with me with my then unknown mental illness, and (b) how horrible a parent I could have been had I decided to keep her with me. Being that I was previously trained in police/law enforcement, I also knew the risks of child welfare system involvement, so I didn’t want to get myself or my daughter caught up in that either. And then I thought about the single parents in many studies that I had worked on in that lab and the data that mirrored some of my own symptoms as a parent – the negative data transcribed from SACWIS on parental barriers to reunification (or the reasons for removal). I thought about the parents with mental illnesses, parents who probably didn’t know any better. And then I read a passage in Jurkovic’s (1997) book that stated that such child welfare alternatives were not the answer to such cases, that keeping families together and providing the children and the parents with family systems based therapy is more fair to the child than removing them; he asserted that there’s no replacement for a biological parent who should act as a parent to their children (I’m paraphrasing all this here, by the way). I immediately went to punishing myself mentally by wondering what more I could have done to keep my daughter with me, even though I know that the adoptive mom is doing a great job and is providing so much more than I ever could for my daughter. I wanted to spare my own daughter from the untreated mental illnesses I had back then, and I wanted nothing but the best for her. I took Jurkovic’s (1997) words as punishment for myself. For a year and a half I tried to explain to my now ex-mentor that I struggled with this and was beginning to find it difficult to differentiate myself from the variables we were working with – but I don’t think he understood me clearly, and in all fairness to him, I probably didn’t present it clearly. I continued to work until I eventually quit.

    I did take my ex-mentor’s advice to seek therapy while I remained in his lab, and one of my new therapists had even told me that I could have used wraparound services to help me keep my daughter with me. I had no idea what those services were back then, and I didn’t even know psychology or the depths of my own disorders back then, so the would-have-could-have-should-have statements are moot arguments today, for me. But such statements remind me of the lingering pain of giving my daughter up for adoption, and of the pain that many parents and children face when a parent has a mental illness. Is it okay to have children stay with their mentally ill parent? When it is okay, and when is it not? Of course, the parent should be in treatment and have a strong supportive network to help her (or him) with what they now call “co-parenting” or even respite, but many parents with mental illnesses cannot afford treatment, and their mental illness symptoms seemingly prevent strong and healthy social networks. Therapy was painful, the lab was painful, the research I was so curious about was painful.

    Some theorists posit that parentification begins as early as infancy. I was horrified to read that because I wondered if any of my actions as a short-term parent and then my actions involved in giving my daughter up for adoption meant that I had still parentified my daughter in some way. With any trauma or adverse childhood experience, there are levels of adultification that occur – but then again, there are those same levels of adultification that occur in third-world countries, with children who have cancer, and with gifted children who are outlierrs on an intelligence scale. To me, adultification did not exact parentification, but all forms of parentification included a dimension of adultification. Parentification is such a loaded term, and there is no consensus on its definition.

    The pain of self-reflection, self-awareness, and all the new stuff you had presented recently sheds light on thinking in a different way – a more positive way about the self. I’ve since learned how to separate myself from the research that I’m doing, and I’m barely learning (and sometimes failing along the way) how to not be so critical of myself when I reflect on the past or even on the self-awareness I have in the present.

    I try to imagine the pain of others – the pain of the parents and the pain of the children in both foster care settings and family settings (unremoved). All these intergenerational traumatic experiences breeds more abuse, neglect, psychosocial problems. When will it end? Can it end? Is this preventable?

    I think more awareness, like what you’ve presented here, helps to not only spread awareness gently, but also to prevent ongoing suffering – for both parents and their children.

    I miss my daughter, but I love her enough to want the best upbringing she can have – even if that means being separated from me. To love my daughter is to love her real parents – her adoptive parents, and so I do. To love my daughter means that I will not use mental illness as an excuse for failing to parent her in the way she deserved; I failed, and she did deserve the best from me, even though I couldn’t provide it. She has every right to her feelings, and I really care enough to listen (hopefully one day, when she and I reconvene). She has every right to be angry that she didn’t get the childhood she deserved from me. I will not candycoat all this, but I will continue to tell her that I have and will always love her, that I’ve been trying to work on myself all this time, that I have never stopped thinking about her, and that she has always been wanted by me. The pain she suffers as being an adopted child is my fault, and I own that responsibility, even though mental illness isn’t my fault. But I can’t blame the system or my past traumatizing events for not being the parent I deserved to her. I will counteract my negative self-talk, however, with saying that I did the best that I could do with what resources I had at the time, and that I have always and will always love her – and that she is free and open to express whatever she needs to express to me and with me. When I reconvene with my daughter, I will do so with the help of a therapist. I have no idea how our first meeting or succeeding meetings will go, but I will get all the help I need for that so that we all have a good experience.

    That said, I don’t judge parents for deciding to keep their children with them. Some have strong support systems, and some are able to manage their mental illnesses way better than I could at the time I had my daughter. To me, those parents are brave!

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  6. Sometimes there are no good choices, even in less fraught situations that the one you describe. It is also far too easy for us to imagine and idealize the road or roads we didn’t take. Under the pressure of what your own emotional injuries were at the time, you made a reasonable and loving choice. Under that pressure, you will never know what the stress of bringing up your child would have been like, and whether that would have made your capacity to parent her even more limited than you thought. We humans injure other humans, including our kids, in the best of situations and the best of intentions.

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    • Thank you, Dr. S. I really needed to hear that. In the genie story you wrote, I considered the orphaned kids at the end, the unspoken ending with their parents gone. I wished that the parents took the information they saw in that mirror and used it to improve their individual lives and their relationships with one another. Stepping back, I realized how we interpret negative information about ourselves, and without the CBT tools to guide us in a more positive direction, unintended outcomes ensue. If the genie had first given the couple tools to cope with the mirror, maybe the couple would not have died. I keep reading that story because it is loaded with hidden meanings, and I discover new ones after every read. I learned this time how important coping skills are, through tools like CBT. If anything helped me to find strength within myself after looking at my own mirror, it was that. I can either wallow in self-pity about all the mistakes I have made and the harms I have done, or I can learn from them and do the best I can going forward. I have to be my own best advocate without tooting my own horn, and I have to be vulnerable enough to know my own limitations and understand other people better. For all the times I lamented about feeling misunderstood, I never once considered the reverse: Could it be that I was the one misunderstanding others? Could it be that my internalizations of my misunderstanding of the mirror were flawed? The intention of the mirror or the genie was to help, not harm. To understand that meant that I could live better by changing my thoughts and behaviors. And then maybe I can have more compassion for others because I found compassion for myself. It does not excuse the wrong behavior or the harms I have caused, but it does mean that I have learned from them and can therefore change. I do not have to suffer from guilt anymore.

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  7. The last sentence is affirming and I was happy to hear it. By the way, you may be discovering hidden meanings in the story that even I don’t know! Not an uncommon experience for fiction writers, I’m told.

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    • Thank you, Dr. S. I will miss comment exchanges like these, as I know you will not always have time to comment. But it was kind of you to reply to me here, and it helps me to adjust to change. I suppose that I grew attached to you, but in a good way. I cried when April the Giraffe videos were over, and I cried when my favorite star on Homeland got killed off the show. I cried when you posted your when bloggers stop blogging post, and then I laughed at myself for crying. I really benefitted from this blog and your words. But, I do like the change in seasons, and the mysteries of life. Who would have thought I felt this way? It is a good feeling though. I can learn to embrace changes in seasons like this, and the wonderful connections I have felt behind a screen?! Thank you!

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