Article: Are You Your Child’s Friend or Parent?

By: Nathan Feiles, MSW, LCSW

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say this to their child, or how many times I’ve heard someone give advice to another parent saying, “you can’t be your child’s friend, you have to be their parent.” While there may not be one right way to raise a child, there is one thing I would say — the type of relationship you have with your child is very likely the type of relationship they will have with friends and significant others in the future.

As a relational therapist, I am always attuned with the dynamic repetitions and patterns that occur throughout people’s lives. As a more obvious example, someone who is abused growing up will be most likely to end up in abusive relationships as an adult (either as the aggressor, as the victim, or oscillating back and forth between the two). Whatever the dynamics of upbringing are, they will likely be repeated throughout a person’s life.

However, somehow, the connotation of being an effective parent has been synonymous with needing to aspire to be in some way unfriendly, un-nice, or overly strict. If you’re fostering a nice, supportive, friendly, open relationship with your children the suggestion is you’re somehow doing them a disservice by “trying to be their friend.”

The truth is, there is a difference between being a negatively enabling parent who just gratifies your children and actually creating a positive relationship with appropriate and healthy boundaries with your child. Yes, we’re all at some point going to disappoint our kids, or not allow them to do something that will make them unhappy (creating necessary relational boundaries that will hopefully help them create boundaries in their own relationships as well). But, at the same time, it’s possible to do this within the context of a positive, supportive, open, and caring relationship. Would it be so bad to be friends with your child? If you want them to have positive relationships with others, it’s probably necessary.

People learn how to have relationships from two main avenues: watching and experiencing. The relationships that children experience on a daily basis will be how they learn to relate in the world as a whole. Teaching a child how to merely be obedient will be more likely to set a child up to be run over by other people in their daily lives — the message is that in order to keep life peaceful, they are to do what they are told to keep others happy, even at their own expense.

Or, if you’re a parent who just enters the scene to let your child know when they are doing something wrong is a good way to destroy their self-esteem.

Or, as another example, having a relationship with your child that is closed off from sensitive conversations will likely result in future relationships where sensitive issues are not spoken about — leading to other issues.

Why does this happen?

Essentially, as children grow up, they are learning their relational comfort zone every day. And “comfort” doesn’t always imply a positive dynamic. A person’s relational “comfort” is what they become used to by living in sets of dynamics every day. If someone is used to living in fear of a parent, odds are they will be drawn to someone who repeats this dynamic. This is because people learn how to function within a set of dynamics. As they grow up, they understand how to navigate the dynamics they are used to…not necessarily the dynamics that would be the most ideal or healthy for them.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen in my practice where the family relationships were distant, at best, when growing up. As a result, it’s been difficult for them to have a healthy intimate relationship with others. It’s important for children to learn how to be close, including the ups and the downs of a close relationship (there will be frustrations and arguments, but there will also be connection, love, and support). When an upbringing doesn’t include closeness, it takes a lot of difficult life learning experiences to understand how to exist in a dynamic of closeness, which some people spend all of adulthood trying to figure out, often going through several marriages in the process.

In short, if there’s a type of dynamic you’d like to see your children function well in, then work to foster that type of relationship with them. If you want assertive children who aren’t afraid to ask questions, then make sure they’re allowed to be assertive inquisitive with you, but also show them what an assertive voice looks like so they can see it. If you want children who talk about their feelings and are self-aware, then don’t be afraid of open conversations with your children that make you vulnerable, as well.

While it is possible for dynamics to flip (someone who is the victim of abuse can become the aggressor as they grow older, for example), it’s important to know that there is no magic switch. It’s very difficult to raise someone in one dynamic and then suddenly see them switch to a different dynamic altogether. Experience the relationship with your children that you want them to experience with others. If you want them to respect others, then it’s necessary to respect them. Etc., etc.

One question you can ask yourself as a parent, before you perpetuate any patterns you don’t want to see your kids end up with in the future is this: “How do I want my children to handle this situation when they are older with someone else?” Checking in with yourself in this way can make a significant difference in how your children relate to others throughout their lives.

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