you can't be your parent's therapist

When Children Become Mini-Therapists: The Impact of Emotional Labor on Young Minds

January 25, 2024

You can't be your parent's therapist.

Some young children have personality traits like agreeableness, conscientiousness, and insightfulness. When these children are being parented by emotionally immature parents or parents who lack support, they may become mini-therapists for their parents. These children may even enjoy this role at first. It brings them closer to their parent and allows them to feel important. They may also be rewarded and praised for this emotional labor.

The Consequences of Emotional Labor

The real issue here is that these children may seem like mini-therapists, but they’re not. They may appear insightful, conscientious, and helpful, but this emotional labor is often way too difficult for their stage of development. They are using an immense amount of energy to manage adult problems with their young brains. This may result in increased anxiety, excessive worry about the parent, and hypervigilance. They may also struggle to set boundaries with their parents and fear what will happen if they do.

Limitations and Impact of Emotional Labor on Children

If you can relate to this, children are not able to successfully serve as their parent’s therapist. They may be able to get by for some time, but eventually, they will be negatively impacted by the amount of support they’re being asked to perform. It’s absolutely impossible for a child to remain objective and unbothered in these situations. They are involved and impacted by every crisis the parent goes through.

The Continuation of this Pattern in Adulthood

And I understand why so many adults continue this pattern in adulthood. They may experience guilt (my parents don’t have anyone else), a sense of duty (I have to; they’re my parent), or a desire to repay them (but they help me all the time). Many adults have a relationship with a parent, and this is the only way they connect. They fear they may never hear from the parent if they set this boundary.

Breaking Free from the Role of Mini-Therapist

I want you to know that you can have compassion for your parents. You can help them when it makes sense. And it is not your job to fix them. It’s important to identify what topics you can discuss with your parent and which ones are just too charged. It’s important to identify when you can be impartial and when it’s just too hard. You may also have moments in the day where you just cannot provide support, and that is okay. You are allowed to release the responsibility of being the family mediator, therapist, or fixer.

Learn to set emotional boundaries.

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