But according to psychologists, continuously confiding in your child can be damaging to their long-term emotional well-being. And while an isolated incident of rehashing a bad day at work won’t cause harm, regularly discussing adult problems the way you would with a peer, forces children into inappropriate parenting roles similar to that of proxy therapists or surrogate spouses.
“Children should not be serving the intimate needs of a parent, or placed in the role of secret-keeper,” says Lisa Hooper, a researcher and professor at the University of Louisville. 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.
Experts believe this kind of behaviour creates an atmosphere of neglect, because children are made responsible for looking after the emotional and psychological well-being of the parent while suppressing normal childhood needs.
Hooper notes that “when a child starts serving as a friend to the parent, and the parent is getting his or her needs met through the child, that becomes problematic.”
Her research has shown that the effects of childhood parentification can be long-lasting and multi-generational. In one study published in the Journal of Family Therapy, data was taken from 783 university students to evaluate the link between their childhood roles and responsibilities with their later adult psychological functioning. It found that people who experienced early parentification were at an increased risk of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance misuse as an adult.
“Parents and caregivers ought to be at the top of the hierarchy in the family system,” says Hooper. And while it’s true that children who take on more adult-like roles can have positive outcomes, such as a strong work ethic, resilience, and self-sufficiency, when taken to the extreme, you’ll start to see kids anxiously caring for others, compulsively overworking, and striving to juggle their responsibilities at school with their role of confidant at home.
“A child imbued with a very early sense of responsibility may carry that trait forward with them forever,” says Gretchen Kubacky, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert in Los Angeles.
Despite good intentions, learning where to draw the line can be especially tricky for parents who want to be seen as their child’s “best friend”. In many cases, it’s because they have their own history of attachment issues caused by growing up with distant, rigid, or neglectful caregivers – and now tend to overcompensate by becoming overly involved in their kid’s life.
“Friendship is reciprocal, based on a mutual sharing of equanimity and equality,” says Fraga. And children simply don’t possess the same emotional maturity and understanding that adults do. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be loving and caring, but that you distinguish between being honest and supportive, and maintaining appropriate boundaries.
Fraga believes that line is being crossed more and more these days with our culture of over-sharing on social media and influences in pop culture. An example of these blurred boundaries can be seen on the hit TV series Gilmore Girls, in which the mother-daughter relationship between Rory and Lorelai has long been characterised by an enviable quality of closeness. But as with many parent-child friendships, the consequences don’t show up until after adolescence.
In previous seasons, Lorelai comes across as a mother with a penchant for over-sharing with her teen daughter, often blurring the line between parent and bud. This light form of parentification can seem harmless, but fast-forward to a now 32-year-old Rory, and the lax boundaries she shared with her mom come back to haunt her. The new season reboot, A Year in the Life, offers a portrait of a Rory who struggles with bouts of anxiety, and difficulty trusting in her own decisions regarding her career and love interests.
“As adults, children who have been parentified tend to lack confidence and (have) an inability to believe that they can think their way through the simplest of life’s problems,” notes Fraga. “It can really eclipse a person’s ability to receive and to be loved as adults, because it’s too dangerous to let someone in when you’ve been crashed into.”
In his book, Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child, author Gregory Jurkovic wrote that children who take on parental roles during their formative years are later plagued by interpersonal distrust, ambivalence, involvement in harmful relationships, and a destructive sense of entitlement as adults.
“Boundaries should be able to be flexible, and expand and contract based on what is age-appropriate,” says Hooper. It’s fine for parents to share daily happenings with their kids but essentially, it comes down to sharing information according to a child’s development, and no more than what they can deal with. Ultimately, responsible parenting isn’t synonymous with holding back or showing indifference, but an ability to differentiate between where you end and your child begins.