Divorce is a significant life event that can throw one or both parents into turmoil. It impacts them psychologically, leaving many parents depressed and/or insecure, perhaps even on the verge of an emotional breakdown. It also impacts them in a physical sense: Both parents must now fall into their new role and survive as single parents. They must work full time, maintain a home, become sole disciplinarian and manager of the kids, and take care of everything else that comes with the territory of going it alone. This isn’t easy, and almost all parents struggle, at least at first.
When parents struggle, it’s all too easy for them to begin using their children as a crutch. They either rely on children for emotional support, or they start pushing their kids into adult roles to help manage the house. Both of these coping tactics can have unintended consequences.
Relying on children for emotional support
Following a divorce it’s especially common for parents, particularly mothers, to use their children for emotional support. They’re going through a difficult time, and are often lonely. While there’s nothing wrong with opening up to your children, there’s a fine line between expressing your feelings and using your kids to shoulder your burden. It’s okay to talk openly about your struggles, but children shouldn’t be used as a counselor or source of emotional support.
Kids are struggling themselves, and dealing with a parent who comes off as needy or dependant can make children feel more insecure. It’s okay to show your human side – you wouldn’t be able to hide all distress from them even if you tried. But it’s not healthy for you to behave as though you can’t cope, or to turn to them for comforting in a way that you normally do not. Talk to other adults about problems such as money issues, unresolved feelings, work stress, and other adult issues, not your child.
Children are often eager to step into such roles, because they can sense the parent’s despair and want to help out. But this doesn’t mean it’s healthy for them to be doing so. These problems are usually too big for them to understand, and since they are generally powerless to do anything about it anyway, it doesn’t help to dump more anxiety on their shoulders. So if you find yourself discussing such topics, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you initiate the conversations, or do they? Who’s driving the discussion?
- Do you look for them when feeling down or when you need to vent?
- Do you find yourself confiding in them and thinking to yourself about how mature they are for their age?
If in answering these questions the arrow points to you, then you may be confiding in them a little too much.
Using older children as a surrogate parent
Both during and after the divorce, it’s quite common for the oldest child to be thrust into the role of surrogate parent for his or her younger siblings. This happens for several reasons. First, parents often become emotionally unresponsive, leaving the older child to take up the slack. Second, younger kids tend to instinctually rely on older ones for support. In their mind, their parents have gone mad, and so siblings band together and learn to rely more on each other. Third, parents become much busier. The transition from married life to single parenting can be hard, and so they may begin to lean on an older child for help in parenting roles that their partner formerly provided.
While we’re hesitant to say that this is automatically a bad thing (many kids in other countries take an active role in parenting siblings, and even in this country, such “caretaker kids” who take on parenting roles in elementary school because of a parent’s irresponsibility or neglect often grow up to possess extremely admirable qualities), it’s usually not a healthy situation. It’s one thing to grow up in a culture where older sis has always looked after the little ones, it’s quite another to suddenly have such responsibilities dumped upon you during a period of transition that is difficult enough as it is. Parents also have a tendency to dump too much on the child’s plate, or to make them feel as though they are responsible for raising and caring for the younger ones. It causes a great deal of stress, and usually a lot of resentment. Remember that in these other countries were such caretaking is common place, fewer demand are placed on the child in other areas, such as academics, so you can’t compare one situation to the other. Thus, divorce experts advise that you “try your best not to delegate parenting tasks to your eldest or most competent child. If you do, then be sure to make the job temporary.” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000, p. 308)
Dumping too much responsibility on their shoulders
This is another touchy one, because we don’t want to pretend that asking children to burden certain responsibilities is unhealthy. It is not. But we also can’t ignore the fact that many kids are deeply resentful even years into the future because of the burden placed on their shoulders after divorce. Many describe an overnight transition where their childhood was lost, and they suddenly found themselves having to parent themselves or take on the roles and responsibilities of an adult as their parents suddenly got caught up in their new lives, becoming unresponsive to them and their siblings. They suddenly had to make their own lunches (at 5-years-old), handle homework on their own, do their own grocery shopping, put themselves to bed while a parent was out on a date, and otherwise take care of themselves.
There is no magical formula that determines when responsibility becomes too much, and this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Just keep in mind that the more change you dump on a child during this transition; the more difficult it will be to cope.
Statements that convey dependency or an inappropriate role shift
Be careful about using the following statements, which may be interpreted by the child as too much weight on their shoulders or parental dependency:
- “You’re the man/woman of the house now.”
- “Promise me that you will never leave me.”
- “You’re all I have. You’re the only one I can rely on.”
- “I need you to start being responsible for your brothers and sisters.”
- “You can do that for me, can’t you?”