I remember, even now, how heavy it felt. As a sensitive child, I felt the emotions of others - absorbed them it seemed. And many times, I even bore the weight of them as my own responsibility. When my mother was having a depressive episode, I carried it with the shame of believing if I had just been a better child, different somehow, she wouldn’t be so sad. When my parents fought, I hoisted that upon my own tiny shoulders as well. I wanted to make the adults around me proud, but it felt like they were all disappointed or struggling in ways I couldn’t understand or fix. As a result, I grew into an adult who had weak boundaries and many masks who was more concerned with pleasing everyone around me than caring for my own needs.
When children feel responsible for taking care of their parents emotionally, it can cause a range of mental and emotional issues. This can look like:
- Children feeling the need to soothe, calm, or help their parent “feel better.”
- Children constantly worrying about how their parents are feeling and trying to accommodate their parents.
- Children taking on a caregiver role.
- Parents oversharing or using their children for emotional support.
- Children having to mature too quickly in order to accommodate their parents’ emotional needs.
On the outside, these kids may look like they have surpassed their peers in maturity. They may seem more responsible than other kids, earning them praise from other adults who say they are “beyond their years,” “mature for their age,” or “so grown up.” However, children do not have the mental and emotional capacity to handle adult problems. Therefore, when they are forced to be “beyond their years,” they are losing vital chunks of their childhood.
Potential Consequences For Taking On A Parent’s Emotions
- The child feels trapped. They worry that the parent will fall apart without them. It’s difficult for them to grow up and choose their own paths because they feel responsible for their parents.
- The child struggles with boundary setting into adulthood.
- They constantly put the needs of others before their own.
- They become people pleasers.
- They struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, or inadequacy that can carry on into adulthood.
- Has difficulty in sharing their own emotional needs in relationships as they tend to carry on that caretaker role.
- The attachment roles are reversed, meaning the child doesn’t develop a secure attachment.
If this is the familiar story of your own childhood, you may worry about repeating the cycle. However, because you are reading this, you are conscious, which means you have the power to break the cycle. Here’s how:
4 Powerful Ways To Ensure Your Kids Don’t Bear the Weight of Your Emotions
Because parents are people too, we are imperfect. We deal with heavy emotions, and we often don’t get the support we need. It’s also very difficult to know where the line is because we want to be real with our kids. We want them to see us being fully human. It’s okay for kids to know that we feel sad or that we’re struggling. So, where is the line where they cross over into taking responsibility? There’s no clear answer, unfortunately. Sensitive kids have a tendency to take this on more so than those with less sensitivity.
Teach emotional intelligence. Part of teaching your child about emotions is telling them where the responsibility ultimately lies. So, you might say, “I feel a bit sad today. This is not your fault or your responsibility. I am dealing with my sadness by writing in my journal and listening to my favorite playlist. I think I’ll feel better soon. How do you deal with your sadness?” This teaches your child several things. First, that emotions are like waves, they’re not permanent. They rise and fall and keep moving. Second, you taught her that she isn’t responsible for how you’re feeling. Third, you taught her some of your own coping skills. Fourth, you showed her that her sadness is ultimately her responsibility as well. The Time-In ToolKit has great tools included that make learning about emotions fun and engaging.
Be mindful of how much you share. Yes, you can be authentically human and yet mindful of your child’s age and sensitivities. A highly sensitive preschooler wouldn’t be privy to the same information as a teenager for obvious reasons. A teenager who is struggling with their own emotional turmoil may not have the capacity to take on any more. These examples show why mindfulness is important even as we are real with our children. If having hard conversations with your child feels tricky, try these tips.
Take care of your emotional health. Make sure you have the right support and that you learn coping skills so that your child has an emotionally healthy parent. The most important way to keep your child from bearing the weight of your tough emotions is to quickly and appropriately deal with them yourself in healthy ways before they ever trickle down to your kids.
Get comfortable with setting boundaries with your child. This will help keep you from reaching your boiling point. Communicate your boundaries clearly. Best-selling author and gentle parenting expert L.R. Knost explains boundaries beautifully. She says, “Boundaries are not barbed-wire fences, love. Boundaries are the poetry and prose that tell others how to love, respect, and connect with us. Boundaries are the choreography of our relationships, guiding the steps of our interactions. Boundaries are love in action.” Knost explains that healthy boundaries are not selfish, controlling, demanding, unreasonable or unloving. They are self-honoring, confident, secure, reasonable, and rooted in love.
Our children’s small shoulders aren’t meant to bear the weight of their parents’ emotional troubles. Ultimately, it is up to us to ensure we bring our healthiest selves to our children’s presence so that they are free to grow into their healthiest selves. Taking the responsibility for our emotional life off of them gives them this freedom and allows us to take ownership of our own stories, thereby freeing ourselves in the process as well.