Adults need to be held, even if the need grows less frequent and the fuel goes much farther. But even with bigger gas tanks and better mpg, adults need pit stops just like children—to feel held and reassured.
In the best of circumstances, this means turning to an intimate partner, a friend, or a colleague. It might mean a trip home to mom or a weekend away with the girls or a night out with a brother or sister. Even the familiarity of a fleeting “hello” in passing can feel like an anchor, topping off the tank just enough so that you have more to give to your child.
But some parents make the grave mistake of turning to an immature child for support. Reversing the roles. More or less explicitly asking the child for some of his precious emotional fuel. The parent who prematurely promotes a child into the role of ally or peer, confidant or friend, is “adultifying” the child. The parent who goes even further, making the child into his or her caregiver, is “parentifying” the child.
These are easy mistakes to make. Overwhelmed, exhausted, and bursting at the seams with emotion, mom comes home and there’s Billy, watching TV or playing a video game or doing his homework. He might be five or six, fifteen or sixteen. His age is unimportant. What matters are the roles. Mom is supposed to be the anchor. Her job is to refuel Billy and help him manage his emotions. Her willingness and ability to read and respond to Billy’s needs—to hold him tight—is how he feels safe and secure.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Mom feeling overwhelmed or even letting Billy know this in moderation. He needs to see that she’s human in order to allow himself to be human as well. To know that she can cry or rage or worry and that he’s safe all the while. To learn that strong emotions can be managed. The problem occurs when Mom asks Billy to manage her emotions.
Remember that Billy, like all of us, is eager to win love and approval; in this case, from his mom. He wants to feel held tight. If listening to mom rant about the boss or cry about the bills, then that’s what he’ll do. And he’ll do it with equal parts pride and confusion. He’ll nod his head and pat her back and hug her while she sobs, even though he knows nothing about bosses or bills. If getting her medicine or pouring her another beer or cleaning up her vomit or tucking her into bed gets him held, then he’ll gladly become her best friend or caregiver.
Later, his experience as mom’s helper and best friend will shape his personality. His expectations for other relationships will shift. He’ll become a caregiver to others and an enabler. He’ll compromise his own needs in order to care for others. He’ll often feel used and discarded. He may see himself as disposable, as unimportant, and he won’t know why. If he succeeds in school, he might become a nurse or a therapist, and he might even be good at what he does, but he’ll do it for the wrong reasons and then he’ll burn out.
Adultification and parentification can cost a child the opportunity to learn how to value and care for himself. These experiences can leave the boundaries of identity fragile. The lesson is that you can only be loved for what you give, and you can never give enough. Looking back, years later, empty and sad, Billy may discover that he is angry at mom for having relied on him—he was just a little boy!—and for cheating him out of his childhood.
The problem is that children generally enjoy being adultified and parentified. The role makes them feel needed and valuable, valued and held. They feel special, sometimes because a selfish and needy parent has told them exactly that. But they win these misplaced kudos by surrendering their anchor in order to become one.
Parents rationalize these role reversals as if there could ever be a good reason to treat a child like a peer or a parent. “He’s an old soul,” they say, or, “He deserves to know.” Mistaking a child’s verbal strengths or social skills for maturity, they explain, “He can deal with it.”