Should you be friends with your kids?

A close relationship with your child is one thing, but boundaries are key. Here’s how to strike a balance between enjoying your kids and parenting them.

Wanting to be liked as a parent is only natural, but when you try to become your child’s friend, it can sometimes have consequences on your ability to parent effectively, as well as your child’s development.

Here’s how to establish a relationship with your child that is healthy and respectful, while still leaving room to have fun.

Why a healthy parent-child relationship is important

Most parents want a loving relationship with their child, but the issue of establishing a friendship often depends on the stage you’re at in the parenting journey.

Clinical psychologist and founder of Mummawise Maddy Drew says while your child is still young, parents should avoid pursuing a friendship with them.

“This is due to the fact that parents are responsible for the safety, guidance, nurturance and wellbeing of their child, which is not the same set of responsibilities in a friendship,” Maddy says.

The downsides of being your child’s friend

The parent-child dynamic plays a critical role in a child’s development, and it requires a parent to act as a parent rather than a friend to ultimately keep their child safe both physically and emotionally.

Counselling psychologist and Australian Psychological Society president Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe explains:

“Being overly friendly can dilute a parent’s authority, potentially hindering their ability to set limits, guide behaviour, and instil values,” Dr Davis-McCabe says.

“Children need parents primarily for guidance, structure, and security – roles that sometimes require making unpopular decisions.”

Also, a parent treating their child as a friend can place a child in a situation that they are ultimately not ready for, such as having to deal with a parent revealing personal information or problems.

Maddy says the expectation for the child to respond with emotional or practical advice that they are unlikely to be able to provide can create psychological distress for the child.

“These types of interactions can establish a pattern in the relationship where the child is ‘parentified’ leading to a role reversal, which could negatively impact the trajectory of normal child development.

“At its worst, this could adversely impact the child’s mental and emotional health,” she says.

How to establish a healthy parent-child relationship

While friendship is something that can be revisited when your child reaches adulthood, it’s still important to establish and maintain a healthy parent-child relationship early on.

But what’s the right balance between a parent being an authority figure and being a loving presence in their child’s life?

Parent coach Rachel Schofield says parents should aim for a relationship that involves “high warmth, high expectations and respecting their child’s emotional autonomy”.

“High warmth really matters,” Rachel says. “It’s good to have fun with your kid and join them in things they enjoy.

“It’s also important to hold high expectations for kids, which means boundaries.

“And that all needs to be done whilst respecting your child’s individuality – they are an emotionally separate person to you with different interests and needs.”

Maddy says her mantra when it comes to parenting is “be kind but firm”.

This can include things such as involving your child in decisions that are age-appropriate, natural consequences as opposed to punishment and establishing clear expectations and boundaries that are followed through with.

“Ideally the foundation you are laying down now with your child will see you both wanting to spend time with each other as adults and possibly friends!” she says.

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Written by Tania Gomez.