Parents in the midst of separation, divorce, a crumbling marriage or being lonely are susceptible to sharing too much with their children, making their child their confidant, and/or leaning on their child for emotional support. Parents who foster this dynamic typically do so unintentionally; they do not realize the impact of their behavior and do not intend to hurt their children. Despite intent, the child becomes a parent/adult in that role, and loses some aspects of their childhood. Children put in this position may feel special or privileged because the parent is sharing adult information with them and/or is looking to them for support. However, the child’s needs are ignored because the parent places their emotional needs first, often unwittingly.
Putting children in the middle of adult conflict or colluding with a child increases the level of the parent’s dependency on the child. The child, in turn, may become concerned about having to take sides or protect a parent. This can create an unhealthy sense of loyalty or obligation to a parent, which can result in a love/hate relationship between children and parents. The long-term developmental consequences of this dynamic can be devastating.
Children who have experienced being an emotional confidant to a parent may have great difficulty setting boundaries and getting their needs met as adults. They may have feelings of excessive guilt when asking for their needs to be met. In addition, it can greatly inhibit their ability to maintain intimacy in adult partnerships.
This dynamic impacts the family dynamic as a whole. One partner typically experiences being shut out and doesn’t get opportunities for parent-child bonding. Other children in the home may be neglected as the parent leans heavily on the “chosen child.” The other children often feel abandoned, not liked, and that they have done something wrong that resulted in their status not being the ”chosen child.”
A child is far less equipped to handle whatever it is that the parent isn’t able to handle themselves. The parent chose not to turn to another adult for help. The separation of parent and child roles vanishes and is replaced with two parents/adults and no child. The “chosen child” often feels that they are second in command with siblings and that reinforces the parental role they aren’t supposed to be.
The chosen child goes into this role without the years of life experience and understanding that occurs on the way to adulthood, and is forced to take on information and modeling that is way above their maturity level. Additionally, this “adult role” of the “chosen child” will spread out to all settings. At school they may feel that they are a peer to the teacher. They may struggle with team sports because they won’t be treated like an adult, they will be treated in an age-appropriate manner.
Parents often deny that they have a relationship with their child where they treat the child like an adult emotional partner, and may lack insight when it is brought to their attention. If you are a parent and come to believe you have mistakenly developed this dynamic with your child, you can work to return the child to just being a child in your relationship. While the child cannot unhear or unsee what they have already heard and seen, they can benefit from you noting your mistake and assuring them in the future you will lean on other adults for ‘grown up things’ which they don’t need to worry about; they can just enjoy being a child. If you or your child have trouble returning to a healthy, developmentally appropriate parent-child relationship, a child and family therapist can help.