Not Your Best Friend
Giving children more responsibilities helps them to be empowered and it also helps them to mature faster which is a good thing. Sometimes we need to check ourselves to make sure that we are not giving them responsibilities that they cannot possibly take on.
I’ve met a couple of parents before now who have said things like “oh we’ve got such a good relationship, he’s like my best friend”. That makes my teeth feel funny because quite often this is in a therapeutic scenario and there’s a reason why that child is coming to see me and it’s probably related to the fact that they have been in an environment where they have perhaps seen, heard or taken on too much responsibility for too much grownup stuff.
Whilst I do believe giving children responsibilities is overall a good thing to do, I’m talking about very specific chores and things that are within their current abilities. However, what they should not be doing is hearing the stuff that adults stress about because what children are very good at doing is taking on board those stresses and worries that you have. So if you are offloading to a young person as if they are your best friend and telling them the sorts of stuff that you would tell your best friend you are quite possibly just emotionally dumping on them and leaving them with a problem that is way beyond their reach which they’re never going to be able to solve. That’s massively disempowering and causes them to have a great deal of stress in their lives.
We want to be cautious and protect them from things that are outside of their age or stage brackets. I remember once upon a time working with a young girl whose Grandma passed away. Her mum had been in and out of hospital with her grandma and after her grandma died, her mum offloaded to her daughter as if she were a best friend about some of the experiences that her grandma had gone through in those final days and hours. That conjured up images in the child’s mind that would probably cause most people not to sleep very well at night. How was she supposed to hold this information? What was she supposed to do with that? Her mum did need to offload that stuff, it wasn’t fair as the child could not process it.
It’s also helpful if you don’t give young people the responsibility for keeping other people safe. Let me give you an example, let’s say that there is a Mum, a Daughter and a slightly older Son and the Dad’s going to be going away on a work trip for the week. Dad says to his older son “I’m relying on you to be the man of the house and to keep everybody safe now”. What if something happens and the Sister has an accident or the Mum has a bang in the car, we now have this older Son feeling like he’s let his dad, his family and himself down because he didn’t keep people safe in the way that he had been expected too. It is something we say quite often in the hope the child would behave better with their new sense of authority and purpose.
Whilst we are giving children responsibilities that are just within their grasp or slightly above to give them the stretch what we’re not doing is saying “you get full access to all of the adult content because you’re my best friend, I think you can handle it and you seem to be mature” because actually they can’t and they will let you down. They won’t be able to hold that stuff, it’s too much for them.
When I’ve had clients who are in this situation, and I’ve spoken to them and said “you know you’re stressing about whether Mum can afford the electricity bill, is that your job?” They would say no because they know that they are children, and they know that that’s not something that should be playing on their minds even though Mum dumped those worries on them. At this point, I say to them that they are fired from this job. It is important to keep boundaries nice and clear about when we want to be given responsibility and when we most definitely do not and what that place is which is reserved for your friends and your grownup relations and your loved ones that are also grownups and what stuff is just not for the age and stage of the children in your life.
By Gemma Bailey