power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, October 9, 2017

Why Your Child Can't Be Your Best Friend

In my previous article, Caregiving For a Depressed Mother as a Child and a Depressed Spouse as an Adult, I discussed how early dynamics between parent and child often get recreated in adult relationships.  In this article, I'm focusing on a particular dynamic between parent and child where the parent sees the child as his or her "best friend" and the child takes on the parental role (also known as the parentified child) and the parent takes on the child role.

Why Your Child Can't Be Your Best Friend

To explore how this parent-child dynamic develops, it's important to realize that the parent who sees the child as a best friend usually was in that same role with one or both of her parents as a child.  In other words, this is often an unconscious repetition, so it doesn't seem unusual to the parent.  On the contrary, it's very familiar because he or she lived through it as a child and considered it to be "normal."

The parent who treats their child as a best friend often didn't get her emotional needs met as a child because of her own role as a best friend to her parent (I'm saying "her," but this is also true of relationships between a parent and a son).

This dynamic can continue to repeat itself intergenerationally, so there can be three or four generations where the children are expected to focus on the emotional needs of the parent instead of the parent taking care of the emotional needs of the child.

This comes at a tremendous emotional cost to the child because she subordinates her emotional needs to the needs of the parent.  On the face of it, this might seem like an impossible task for a child, but many children learn to sacrifice their emotional needs for  their parent's needs, and they become very good at it--to their own detriment.

So, if this is happening intergenerationally, how can a family break this unhealthy cycle?

Well, it often occurs when the child approaches adulthood and struggles to develop a healthy sense of autonomy.  Although this is a healthy sign for the child, it can wreak havoc between the parent and adult child if the parent isn't willing to allow the child to be more independent.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized vignette which explores these dynamics:

Clarissa and Clara
Clarissa started therapy soon after she began submitting her college applications to out of state colleges.

Why Your Child Can't Be Your Best Friend

Clarissa was an only child who was still living at home.  Her mother, Clara, was a single parent.  At the point when Clarissa came to therapy, they were arguing about the fact that Clarissa wanted to go away to college.  Although Clarissa stood her ground with her mother, inwardly she felt deeply ambivalent about leaving her mother.

Not only did she fear that her mother would be very lonely without her but Clarissa knew that her mother relied on her when Clara felt especially depressed and discouraged.

On the one hand, Clarissa wanted to be away at college to experience more freedom and have the campus experience before she settled down in a career.  On an intuitive level, she knew this was what she needed emotionally and socially.  But, on the other hand, she felt guilty leaving her mother alone.

When they argued, Clarissa tried not to show her ambivalence because she feared that she would cave in to her mother's wishes and sacrifice her own needs.  But, internally, she was struggling with the possibility of letting go of her role as her mother's best friend.

As Clarissa explored her family history with her psychotherapist, she began to realize for the first time that she and her mother had a similar dynamic to her mother and maternal grandmother.

Similar to the maternal grandmother, Clara was in her mid-teens when she had Clarissa.  They both raised their children without the biological father with the help of their mothers. Clara was her mother's best friend and confidant and they usually did everything together.

When Clarissa revealed to Clara that she wanted to go away to college, Clara was stunned.  She couldn't understand why Clarissa would want to leave their town where their family had roots for many generations.

Clara had always hoped that she and Clarissa would have a similar relationship to the one that Clara had with her mother.  She told her that Clarissa that she considered it a form of betrayal that she would want to move away to college for four years.

Clarissa talked to her therapist about how she grew up listening to her mother's problems.  Even as a young child, she tried to help her mother to overcome feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Even though she was only a young child, she felt she did a good job of shoring her mother up emotionally.  But now, she wanted something more--something for herself for a change.  She asked her therapist, "Am I being selfish?"

Over time, Clarissa's therapist helped her to work through her ambivalence to see that what she wanted for herself was healthy and necessary for her well-being.

Being able to look at her situation through her therapist's eyes, Clarissa could see, for the first time, that what was expected of her as a child wasn't healthy for her.  At the same time, she had a lot of compassion for her mother.

When Clarissa felt ready, she asked Clara to come to a therapy session with her.  Although Clara said she "didn't believe in therapy," she came to the session with a wary eye on the therapist.

When Clarissa explained to Clara why she wanted to go away to college, Clara burst into tears.  Although they had had this same talk many times before on their own, Clara realized that Clarissa made up her mind and it was final.

Clara explained to Clarissa and the therapist that she wanted what was best for her daughter, but she felt it would be unbearable for her to be home alone, especially since her mother died the year before.  She would have no one.

Clara idealized her relationship with her mother and told them that, from the time Clarissa was born, she wanted the same relationship with Clarissa that she and her mother had.  She was her mother's best friend and she hoped that Clarissa would be her best friend always.

But now that Clarissa wanted to go away, she saw all of this falling apart for her.  She couldn't understand why Clarissa couldn't go to the local college so they could remain together.  The therapist suggested that Clara could benefit from seeing her own therapist, but Clara brushed this off.

When Clarissa came to her next therapy session, she told her therapist that she felt more confident in her decision, even though she still felt guilty about leaving her mother.

Why Your Child Can't Be Your Best Friend

Eventually, Clarissa went off to college.  She continued to work on the emotional separation process from her mother with a therapist at the counseling center.

Her relationship with her mother remained fraught until her mother began developing her own friendships and interests in her church.

Over time, they were able to repair their relationship.  Clarissa enjoyed her new sense of autonomy and she felt that she was finally taking care of her own emotional needs.

When parents have their own unmet emotional needs from childhood, and especially if they were parentified children with one or both parents, they are more likely to try to get their unmet needs through their children.

This is usually an emotional blind spot for the parent.   In most cases the parent is unaware that she is doing harm to the child.  She's just doing what feels right, often based on her own childhood.

Children will often try to extend themselves beyond their emotional maturity and sacrifice their own needs in order to please their parents.

Even when the child attempts to resist being a parentified child, he or she often feels guilty about not being able to meet their parent's needs.

In order for the child to grow emotionally, the child needs to assert his or her own needs by resisting the parent's attempt to make the child their emotional caregiver.  Resisting the parent is usually very difficult and beyond what most children are able to do.

In order for the parent to grow, the parent needs to mourn that s/he didn't get what s/he needed as a child and find other healthy ways of getting emotional needs met instead of depending on the child.

Getting Help in Therapy
It's often difficult for the child to assert his/her needs for fear of losing a parent's love.  Similarly, it's often difficult for a parent to resist depending upon the child emotionally.

For parent and child, psychotherapy is often helpful to overcome these challenges.

If you're struggling with these issues, rather than struggling alone, you could benefit from getting help in therapy.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to negotiate these emotional challenges so you can change, grow and lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have worked with adult children and parents, both individually and together, to help them overcome these emotional challenges.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

No comments: