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10 Signs that the Parent-Child Boundary Is Blurred

By Dr. David Swanson, Psy.D.

You would love to think that your kids not only love you, but also like you—that they think you’re “cool” and consider you a friend. The problem is, when you blur the line between beingparent child boundary your child’s parent and being his friend, your child is likely to use a manipulative technique I call “Forging the Friendship” in order to get what he wants.

Forging the Friendship is the strategy with which your child tries to turn you into his friend, thereby breaking down the power structure that should exist. When you revert from parent to friend, it’s much harder for you to say no.

Children who employ this manipulative strategy are understandably unaware of the dysfunction between themselves and their parents. They may fall into this role because they take emotional care of a parent or because the parent shares inappropriate information with them, such as details of a dispute with a spouse, or financial worries.

In my practice, divorced parents are most at risk for blurred parent-child boundaries for several reasons:  (1) they fear losing their child’s respect or love; (2) they don’t want to be viewed as the “bad” parent, or (3) they’re lonely and in need of a friend or confidant.

Psychologists call a child who is forced to take on the responsibilities of her parent or caregiver a “parentified child.”

Here are 10 signs to watch out for:

1.    Parent and child sleeping in the same bed.

2.    A child actively defying his parent or using such inappropriate language as, “Oh please, you’re only saying that because he’s here. You know when we get home, you’re not going to follow through.”

3.    A child referring to his parent as “cool.”

4.    A child who behaves as though he is much more adultlike than is age appropriate, or uses language such as “those kids” when referring to peers.

5.    Children saying their parents “let me get away with whatever I want.”

6.    Children reporting their parents are easy to manipulate.

7.    Parents reporting that they often need permission from their child.

8.    Parents setting few or no limits or boundaries.

9.    Parents wanting to have fun with their child but never imposing consequences for inappropriate behavior, lest they “ruin the time they spend together.”

10.    Parents seeking advice and guidance from their child in such a way that places the child in the caretaker role. 

David Swanson, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in children and teens suffering from ADHD, oppositional and defiant behavior, anxiety, depression, and social problems. His new book is Help! My Kid Is Driving Me Crazy: The 17 Ways Kids Manipulate Their Parents and What You Can Do About It (Perigee, Sept. 2009). You can learn more about him at DrDavidSwanson.com. Published 2009.

Do you have a “parentified child”?

Here are some ways to reestablish your authority. If your child badgers you for more information, say, about what led to your divorce or how much money you make, simply tell her it’s not an appropriate topic of conversation. If you normally go to your child for comfort after a bad day, or when you’re feeling lonely or depressed, make an effort to seek help and solace from someone outside the house—a friend, counselor, or family member.

Remember, also, that it’s perfectly okay to tell your child that you’ve made some parenting mistakes, but from here forward there will be new rules and limits. Be prepared for emotional pushback. If your child tells you you’re not cool anymore and you’re acting like a parent, accept this as a compliment!

Updated August 2012 

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