As our children get older, the line between parent and friend can seem less clear. This licensed mental health counselor explains there is a difference between being friendly and being friends.
My children are entering high school and middle school this year. It has been incredible watching them grow and develop into their future selves. Despite how busy our lives are, I have always tried to do my best to be a constant presence in their lives. Throughout this journey, I’ve had to find the parenting style that works for us. My go-to parenting style has been to take a friendly approach with, and towards, my children but I haven’t been their friend.
This is because I believe my children need me to parent them and provide them with guidance and appropriate boundaries. However, now that they are getting older, the line between parent and friend is becoming less clear. I find myself asking when is the right time to shift from a “friendly” parent-child relationship to “being friends” more often. I also wonder what the distinction is between being friendly with and being friends with your children. And why does the distinction matter?
I spoke to family strategist and coach Chautè Thompson, a licensed mental health counselor, who explains there is a difference between being friendly and being friends. “Friendly means you have clear boundaries while still building a relationship,” she says. “Parents have a responsibility to provide guidance, discipline, structure, and a safe environment for physical and emotional exploration. If the lines get blurred with friendship, it makes it difficult to raise emotionally responsible well-adjusted adults.”
Read on for some considerations about having a “friendly” relationship with your children.
The Pros of Being Age-Appropriately Friendly With Your Children
Thompson says being age-appropriate and friendly with your children promotes connection, emotional resilience, security, responsibility, and accountability.
Recent developmental research shows that children benefit most from parents who enforce and maintain structure and boundaries while showing affection and friendliness, as the situation dictates. I’ve found that maintaining this balance creates regular opportunities for my children to have open and meaningful conversations with me, establishes trust, and makes me someone my children feel comfortable confiding in.
“As children enter the teenage and young adult phases, it is important for parents to answer questions and be more transparent. [This] helps children see their parents as not only parents but full human beings,” says Thompson. She explains this new insight further builds the connection and starts the process of shifting the relationship toward friendship. “Children need to have a safe space to ask questions and begin the journey of making decisions,” she says.
The Cons of Being Your Child’s Friend
In my household, I have found it is important for my children to recognize and respect their parents as authority figures. Once that baseline is established, setting clear boundaries, expectations, and guidelines is more seamless.
Research shows there are also cons to being your child’s friend, especially before they reach adulthood, including that it creates a confusing dynamic, results in a loss of authority and the ability to deliver effective discipline, and makes it more difficult for them to pull away later and become independent, among other challenges.
Thompson says being friends blurs the lines and confuses the expectations within the relationship. “Children need to see their parents as authority figures, which translates into their ability as adults to recognize and respond to authority figures,” she says. However, Thompson points out that this does not mean that children only see an authority figure in their parents if they aren’t ‘friends.’ “Children can see their parents as someone who they can share their intimate thoughts, feelings, fears, etc., without boundaries and in a safe and nurturing way,” says Thompson.
When To Shift to Friendship
Thompson says as children age and become young adults, parents can tilt their parent hat in a new direction, opening the door to less parenting and more friendly opportunities. “As children age, the need for guidance reduces, which enables the parent-child relationship to become more of a friendship,” she says.
“We’ve noticed when you get to the point where you can be fully transparent and open, and you are able to talk about aspects of your life that would otherwise be considered ‘grown folks’ business,” your child understands what you are saying in the way that you meant it, you have entered into the stage where your children can be your friends.
The Bottom Line
During the parenting journey, you are laying the foundation as a parent for what will become a friendship further down the line with your adult children. Along the way, it is important to remain a parent and take advantage of the opportunities that arise for age-appropriate friendliness.