“Mummy, you’re my best friend in the whole world ever,” says my three-year-old son when I’m tucking him into bed.
It melts my heart, but – like the truth about Santa, or the tooth fairy – there’s one thing I don’t say. That I can’t be his best friend. That I’ll never be his best friend. And that the reason for this is because I am his mother.
Then there’s his sister. My little girl is seven, and she has secrets. She recently said she “couldn’t” tell me something a friend had told her. As much as I wanted to know what it was, I didn’t badger her for answers.
It’s a tricky balancing act, being close to our kids, isn’t it? We want to share our lives with them and share theirs too, along with their hopes and dreams – and to comfort them when they feel sad or scared. But how close is too close?
Tell them everything and can we be sure we’re protecting them from things they may not be ready for, physically or emotionally? Tell them nothing and we risk over-protecting them, leaving them vulnerable in the future? Ask too little, and miss a major issue. Pry into their lives and risk losing their trust forever.
There is research warning that parents who are too focused on being “buddies” with their kids may also find it hard to enforce rules and standards.
So I spoke to consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron to find out the best approach. Can we ever be ‘friends’ with our children? Here is her advice.
As a parent, try not to overshare
“Parents can get over emotionally dependent on their children, particularly when they’re in their mid to late teens, but also younger children, too,” Citron tells HuffPost UK. “If a parent is unhappy or anxious or having mental health struggles themselves, then they can sometimes lean a little too much on their child – and that’s not helpful. That’s not being a ‘friend’.”
Not only is it emotionally burdensome on a young person, says Citron, it’s inappropriate – the grown-up is meant to be the parent, not the child. “Yes, adults can share stuff that’s happening in their lives, but it shouldn’t be too emotional – such as, they’re not getting on with their partner, or they hate their work – because that’s using the child as a therapist or a substitute partner.”
It’s not that difficult subjects should be banned, she adds, but that it’s important to be moderate when explaining what’s going on to children.
“If you’re experiencing grief, or have lost your job, then of course you can cry and tell them it’s normal to cry,” she says. “Tell them no subject is taboo. But try to use moderate language – “I am feeling a bit stressed”. Try not to alarm the youngster, because you don’t want them to worry about it.”
Speak to a friends, partner or doctor about any bigger worries. “It’s lovely to share positive experiences, and to prioritise the child and their needs, but be very wary of saying, “I’m struggling” to a child,” says Citron. “What you should be thinking about when it comes to your children is, are they struggling?”
Your child has a private life, too
We want to know when there’s something wrong in a child’s life, of course, so we can talk to them about it. That thing my daughter didn’t want to tell me? She’d seen some pornographic images at a friend’s. We talked it through. But I remember being her age and my worst fear was my mum reading my diary.
“Children and teenagers also need privacy,” stresses Citron. “Tell them: “I’m always very happy to listen to what’s going on in your life, but I also respect your privacy with your friends. You can choose to share it with me – but you don’t have to.” Some people are just more introverted and need their privacy and space more than others. This goes for kids, too.
If children aren’t given a healthy sense of privacy, they might not learn to ’self-soothe, Citron adds. “It’s important for all of us to self-manage and self-regulate our own emotional states. It’s very much a part of growing up,” she explains. “If you’re totally dependent on your mum or step-dad to come and save you, you’re not going to learn to deal with the normal knocks and bashes of life.”
She also warns against being ‘over’ involved in your child’s decisions, as exemplified in the trends for so-called ‘helicopter’ or ‘snowplough’ parenting. This can play out into teenage or early adult life, she notes. “Some parents put their kids on dating apps, or apply to the universities they choose for them.”
Above all, it’s important to be present with your child whatever their age. As Citron puts it: “Be quiet around them, listen and give them the opportunity to talk if they want to talk – but don’t put pressure on them to.”