By: Mark Friestad, Guest Blogger
We all value “close” relationships. There’s a level of intimacy and reciprocity that makes both people feel validated. Communication flows freely, and there’s a high amount of mutual respect. Everyone knows that having a close family is better than having an estranged one. But that’s just the problem.
Because “everyone knows” it’s good, we rarely define “closeness” with any precision. As a result, we often make this faulty assumption: if a parent and child have a close relationship, there will be (and should be) no secrets.
In fact, exercising discretion over what to share about your own life, and who to share it with, is a healthy step of autonomy. To be sure, kids and parents should communicate, about issues large and small. But young people also need to cultivate trusting relationships with confidants other than their parents.
This shifts the dynamic in the parent-child relationship. It’s not that teenagers need their parents any less – they just need them in a different way. Kids learn to problem-solve, to negotiate, and to handle disappointment in ways that require less direct parental involvement. Naturally, fewer details get shared.
If a parent feels lonely or alienated by that (Why can’t we spend time together, like we used to? Why won’t he/she open up?), they may try to press in. The kid in turn withdraws, becoming even more secretive. Or, a parent might withdraw, concluding, I guess they just don’t need me anymore. They’d rather be with their friends. That’s not healthy either.
One study by Nancy Darling of Oberlin College found that a combination of warmth and intrusiveness by mothers caused kids to put up privacy barriers, keeping secrets and even lying to prevent parents from knowing what they were up to. Sensitivity was good – it showed kids that the parent respected their desire for autonomy. But the higher the level of warmth – or what we might call the expectation of a “close” emotional bond – the higher the desire for privacy. And warmth plus emotional insensitivity caused kids to be desperate to draw and preserve boundaries of identity between them and their parents.
What, then, should we be aiming for?
How do you know when you’re “too close” for your child’s good? One way is to ask them! Kids, like adults, desire different amounts of direct help and support in different situations. Asking, listening, and then responding out of respect for their needs is a wonderful model of parental support.
Mark Friestad has been a youth pastor to 4th-6th graders since 2005 at North Coast Calvary Chapel in Carlsbad, CA. As part of that role, he coordinates programs for parents on healthy family life and youth development. He was also a high school teacher and worked for a nonprofit organization promoting civic education and participation by youth. He is completing work on his Master’s of Divinity from Bethel Seminary San Diego.