The amount of times I hear people tell me how their child is their best friend or their parent is their best friend astonishes me. I love being friends with my adult children, it’s enjoyable to hang out with them, they make me laugh, and we share the same values… mostly. However, I am always their parent first.
I dig my parents. They are awesome. And they are still my parents.
A parent is defined as a father or mother. A friend is defined as a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations. These are the Oxford dictionary definitions. There are many other nuances in both of these definitions, but you get the point.
It’s great and appropriate to have a tight bond with your child, however, they are not your companion or therapist, nor your support person. You are their support person. It’s a one-way relationship, kind of like those tire spike strips that are at the exit of parking lots. You’re fine if you go one way, but back up and go in the other direction and get severe tire damage. I can already hear many people disagreeing with me. I may get numerous letters, emails, social media posts about how wrong I am, but hear me out.
We share intimate details of our romantic relationships with our friends. That’s fine and normal. But when we do that with our kids, it’s awkward and uncomfortable for them – even adult children. Some children might disagree and say they want to be your support and confidant, but they’re not emotionally prepared for this. I’ve heard parents share details with minor children that are astonishing. When we share a problem with someone, the other person often can’t help but jump into “fix-it” mode and offer solutions. A minor child is too young and naive to be able to emotionally process and respond to adult-level issues.
“My child is super mature,” you say. Stop. That is your own selfishness talking. The depth in which adults bring their children into adult divorce and break-up situations is so painful to hear. And I have heard it hundreds of times and listened to thousands of hours of people talking about just this situation and how awful it is for them to be their parent’s confidant – even if it’s years later. No matter how mature your child is, this is something you’re going to have to trust me on. Those teen girls who want to cuddle up with you on the couch and tell you it’s okay for you to share with them are sitting in my office full of anxiety not sure how to unlearn what their parent has told them.
Instead, the message that your child needs most during your divorce or break up with their parent is:
I love you.
We both love you.
You have nothing to do with this.
We will all be okay.
We are still a family, it’s just reconfigured.
I know where we are heading and we will be okay. (i.e. you are the captain of the ship, your child does not need to worry about where you will live, what you will eat, etc.)
You can talk to me about anything, I am here for you. (Note: one-way direction of this statement).
You also need to cast a vision for the future for your child. Even if you don’t have all the details worked out, you can tell them what you know, or what you are working on. Again, keep it age-appropriate. E.g. I am looking for a place to live and will show it to you once I find it. In the meantime, we will be staying here at our current house and mom and dad will be practicing shared nesting (shared nesting is a term used for when the children stay in the family home and mom and dad stay elsewhere when it is not their parenting time).
There is much to navigate during this time, and in the years ahead. Do your best to stay grounded, share age-appropriate details with your kids, and get yourself your support people so that you don’t burden your children. Your children may want and need someone to talk to other than you, so be open to seeking professional help.