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The Parent Trap

Remember Amy Poehler’s character in the hit movie, Mean Girls? Clad in pink velour, she proudly declares (while seeking approval from her daughter), “I’m a cool mom, right Regina?” Well, in reality, that let-anything-go persona is anything but when it comes to child rearing. The condemnation is swift when you mention parents who consider themselves friends to their kids. Raised eyebrows from parents and skeptical glances from teachers abound when they come in contact with this kind of “cool mom.” However, many mothers still end up in the friend zone with their child. It is sometimes the result of a conscious decision, while for others, an unhappy by-product of trying to create an open, loving relationship.

Hey, Good Buddy
Parents want to be their children’s friend for a variety of reasons, explains Amy Meyer, a licensed therapist who practices in Frisco. “They are fearful their kids won’t like them. Some want their kids to tell them everything and they want to be in the loop. Others don’t want to deal with conflict.”

Leslie Kuerbitz, a licensed therapist based in North Texas calls parents who serve more as friends “Buddy Parents.”

Children with Buddy Parents can suffer both long- and short-term consequences. Insecurity and low self-esteem are common in children who have been brought up this way. They also have greater potential to be exposed to situations that they aren’t emotionally ready for. Kuerbitz offers R-rated movies as an example.

“It bothers me to see children at movies that are totally inappropriate for them to be watching. Buddy parents don’t establish good boundaries.”

Of course, the kid in the inappropriate movie probably really wanted to see that movie. Children with parents who allow them to do as they please are in a quagmire. On one hand, they enjoy being able to do what they want, but at the same time, they are also often resentful.

“Behavior escalates because kids depend on parents for role modeling, setting boundaries and for being an example, explains Meyer. “Kids act angry. A kid will not be able to tell you that, but their behavior is indicative of that. They need to feel safe and secure and they don’t feel that way when parents come from a friendship position.”

Rebellion, which all children engage in, comes in many different forms and has probably existed since children have existed. But for the Buddy Parent, a frequent and obvious sign of the rebellion is a lack of respect shown to him or her. The deference generally given to people in authority is not shared with mom because, as a friend, she is not an authority figure deserving of it. Defiance and disrespect can also be accompanied by yelling, cursing and other unacceptable (and undesirable) behavior.

It is not just parents who end up on the receiving end of the verbal tirades. Sandra White,* a fourth grade teacher in North Texas sees it every day in her classroom.

“Kids who consider their parents first and foremost as friends don’t have as much respect for other adults either,” says White. “I’m the authority figure at school and they try to interact with me like they do their peers and parents.”

The word “authority” is used frequently when discussing Buddy Parents with experts. The need for parental authority makes true friendship impossible—no friend has authority over another. “When I think of a friend I think of someone fun to be with, fun to hang out with, someone equal. In the parent child relationship they aren’t equal. Kids need an authority figure,” says Meyer.

You Have to Do Your Duty
As the child comes into adulthood, they are left with the realization that they have largely raised themselves—and with mixed results. “Kids who don’t have a parent in the authoritarian role usually grow up insecure,” says Meyer. “Kids look to parents for guidance, discipline and boundaries.”

Because parents are responsible for teaching their kids how to behave appropriately, particularly when the child doesn’t want to, disagreements are unavoidable. Conflict avoidance is probably one of the most appealing aspects of befriending your child. Let’s face it, wrangling your defiant, red-faced, crying spawn from the throes of a tantrum ranks right there along the bottom of parenting joys—just slightly above diaper changes. But, like all of the less than pleasant aspects of parenting, it is a necessary part of the job.

Kuerbitz points out that Buddy Parents avoid making decisions that will upset the child. By doing so, moms miss out on vital opportunities to help her son or daughter grow into an emotionally healthy and functioning adult. Disappointment, frustration and reasoning must be experienced and it’s the parent’s job to help them develop coping skills.

The skills most children learn with thoughtful guidance from parents are lost on the child with a parent as a friend. These emotional and social shortcomings bleed over into other relationships the now adult child may have of their own, including with any children they have.

Your Child Should Have His Own Glory Days
For some parents, being a friend to the child is less about avoiding conflict and more about reliving his or her own youth, says Kuerbitz. “These parents are living their lives through their children, instead of helping their children learn to become responsible,” she says. We’ve all joked about living vicariously through a son or daughter, but there is a point where it becomes unhealthy for both parties. In order for children to develop fully, they need age-appropriate autonomy and independence. Children need to forge an identity independent of mom or dad. The constant presence of a parent for whatever reason infringes on this. Moms who try to create another youth experience for themselves through the friends and experiences of their children need to step back and examine their motives.

There’s also the situation where moms may try to foster friendship with their child by adopting the interests, style of dress and manner of speaking that their kids do, particularly teens. It is tempting to believe that the mom who does this has special insight into the teen culture and that gives them an advantage over other parents, but it is almost never true. Even if a parent is able to glean information about poor decisions or behaviors the child is engaging in, they have ceded credibility as the parental model. Their chances of being able to enforce a rule or dissuade an undesirable behavior are greatly diminished.

Complete Honesty May Not Be the Best Policy
So where should the line be drawn when it comes to pal and parent? Parents enter into dangerous territory when they treat a son or daughter like a confidante. While it is true that honesty is an important component to fostering a relationship, details should not be shared with children who are not emotionally or intellectually developed enough to handle the topic. No child needs to know the intricacies of a marriage or divorce, or be subjected to worries and fears about potential financial hardships (financial hardships already in existence can be discussed in an age-appropriate way). Emotionally weighted topics are best saved for adult friends and relatives. When tempted to share with your child in this way, it is best to step back and ask yourself Why am I sharing this information? “Parents need to figure out what is going on with them that they need a child to meet that need,” says Meyer.

Even though it has been more than 20 years, 36-year-old-Therese Davis* feels the burden of being privy to the unseemly details of her parent’s unhappy marriage. Her mother shared so much of the pain and rejection she felt from Davis’ father that she felt obligated to be the emotional support for her fragile mother.

“I felt like I had to fix things so my mom would feel better. But all of this was happening at a time when I was developing myself,” she says. It also negatively impacted the relationship she has with her father—a relationship that is only now on its way to reconciliation.

For moms who are having a difficult time determining what they can share, a good question to ask is Will it benefit my child to know this information or harm her if she doesn’t? Doing anything that only makes the adult feel better, and has no positive effect on the child, is a sure sign that you should reevaluate what you are about to do or say.

Just Call Me “Mom”
The good news is it is never too late to try to become a better parent. Just know that changes in behavior are always hard, and not just for the children. To go from friend back to mom, you must first be aware of situations where you are not acting in your parental authority and responsibility. Once you are able to recognize when you are letting your kids get away with something they shouldn’t, then you have to set limits on that. Changing the family dynamic requires tenacity, consistency and nerves of steel—all traits you probably already possess deep down inside, but that may need reinforcing.

No matter what, kids rebel, but if little Johnny or Suzy has been able to do whatever they want with little interference or direction from you, attempts on your part to do differently are probably going to be fiercely resisted.

“They will rebel because it is a change. I can promise you they will let you know they are unhappy with it, but it doesn’t matter, continue on,” advises Meyer.

Making the change with younger children is slightly easier to manage and can sometimes be done just by changing your behavior enough to get you both on the path to a healthier relationship. Older children may benefit from a frank talk about how things are going to be different, along with a tacit acknowledgement that it will be an adjustment for all involved.

Fun and Games and Even Friendship (later)
All this talk of authority, rules, and consistency sound like they can’t co-exist with fun, but Meyer says that is absolutely untrue. “You can, and should have fun with your children,” she explains. “You just have fun with them when it is appropriate.”

Meyer believes that smart parents are able to parent in such a way that when children are young, they are primarily the parent, but as they move through the later years, they are able to tweak that relationship just a little bit. As the children get older, they are given more opportunities to make decisions and become independent.

“The healthy, smart, wise, parents are able to shift into a relationship with their adult children that is more of a friendship,” she says.

Speaking of her own, now adult children, Meyer says, “I had rules and boundaries but we still had fun together.”

Like most things in life, balance is the key. Therapists agree that an open and honest relationship with your child is possible without sacrificing your credibility as a mom.  
“Listen to everything your child tells you,” says Meyer. “Acknowledge that you love that they come to you with their issues. Keep the lines of communication open. But still set limits and boundaries and be the disciplinarian when the need is there.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy