In a healthy parent-child relationship, a child’s emotional boundaries get stronger as she ages. A baby has very few thoughts or feelings that aren’t shared with a parent, via crying, smiling, pointing, or fussing. A preschooler keeps a lot more of his thoughts and feelings private, and a teenager is exponentially more private than that.
In contrast, parents’ boundaries generally get more permeable as children age. With older children, parents share more of their thoughts and feelings. It would be ridiculous for a parent to tell a baby about household finances, and this would be confusing and possibly burdensome to an elementary-school-age child. But, a parent can and should be able to discuss finances with a teenager to a greater extent, particularly as this may be relevant to plans for a job or college tuition.
In a divorce, there are certain areas of discussion that do not have any positive contribution to a child’s well-being or knowledge about the world, and can only have a negative effect. Topics that breach normal parent-child boundaries and are not appropriate to discuss with children include:
- One parent’s lack of financial contribution
- One parent’s hurtful behavior toward the other
- Resentment toward a co-parent
- Anger toward a co-parent
- Anxiety about the future
- A co-parent being “wrong” about how to parent
- The early history of the marriage and when things started to go wrong
- A litany of every detailed event that transpired in the parents’ attempt to save the marriage (for example, saying you went to counseling is fine, but not the focus of each session, the thoughts of the counselor, the false starts at reconciliation, and so forth).
A child may ask about these topics, even persistently. However, no matter who initiates conversations of this nature, they can be psychologically harmful to your child. If a child is an adult (and adulthood nowadays, culturally and psychologically, seems to commence after college), you can broach these topics at your discretion, but it is still not very emotionally generous to your child. There is no positive side to your child being saddled with your painful thoughts, memories, or fears.
Enmeshment is the term for a parent-child relationship that is excessively and unhealthily close. Enmeshed relationships are characterized by a lack of boundaries between a parent and a child. In an enmeshed relationship, the parent shares thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears that are not developmentally appropriate for a child to hear.
Children’s greatest desire is to feel close to and loved by their parents, so if they intuit or are told that a parent needs emotional support, they want to provide it. They may even repeatedly ask the parent to confide, until it really seems like the child is the one that is creating the confidante relationship.
Even if your child initiates conversations that involve adult-level confidences, it is your obligation to avoid or end these conversations. Your child may seem calm and understanding during your conversations, but she is likely ruminating about these ideas and exerting emotional energy figuring out how to solve your problems.
If you’ve been sharing inappropriate information and confidences with your child, don’t lose heart. You did not irreparably damage your child, but you need to change your course. Children are highly resilient and able to switch trajectories easily if gently guided in a better direction by an adult. This is why therapy works so well with kids. The best thing to do now is recognize that you have fallen into a dysfunctional pattern with your child, and to take full responsibility to get your relationship onto a healthier track.
A good first step is to openly tell your child that you’ve been wrong to share so much of your feelings about the divorce and your child’s other parent. Then apologize and tell the child what the new pattern will be going forward. Specifically, tell your child that you will no longer be sharing so many adult, private thoughts and feelings. Say that these feelings are only for adults, and it can be stressful for kids to hear about how upset their parents are all of the time. Most children know the word “inappropriate,” so this is a good word to use to describe how you have been acting.
Your child may first protest, equating a loss of confidences with a loss of love or respect, so be sure to reassure your child that it is actually because you love her so much that you are making this healthy change. Explain that you have been relying too much on your child, and you don’t want your child to worry about you anymore. Reassure your child that you will be fine, and that you will be turning to other adults and to professionals to help you with the stress of the divorce. Although your child may say that your confidences are welcome, she will eventually feel relieved if you stop sharing the details of your emotional life. This will free your child to be a child again.
This article was excerpted from Dr. Samantha Rodman’s new book, How To Talk to Your Kids About Your Divorce, available for purchase here.
Divorcing parents photo available from Shutterstock