Over­shar­ing bad for chil­dren

The Mercury - - FRONT PAGE - Cindy Lamothe

MANY well-mean­ing par­ents tend to over­share what’s go­ing on in their per­sonal lives with their kids – whether it’s by telling them about their most re­cent con­flict at work or com­plain­ing about is­sues at home with their part­ner.

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. – The Wash­ing­ton Post

PIC­TURE: PIXABAY

Psy­chol­o­gists have found that adults whose par­ents con­fided and over-shared with them as kids, suf­fer from sev­eral emo­tional draw­backs.

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