Ever since he was a small child, my oldest son has been a little gentleman trying to care for me. He always opened doors, offered to assist with whatever tasks were occupying my attention, and checked my emotions if he sensed even a hint of anything other than happiness.

One day I asked him to watch his brothers while I took a call in another room for roughly 30 minutes. I came back to hear him yelling at his little brothers to clean up their mess before he had to spank them. What? I quickly informed him that he could not talk to his brothers like that, shocked by the fact he was trying to parent and exert his power at the age of ten.

By this time, I lost track of the number of times I asked him to keep an eye on his brothers, carry in the groceries, take out the trash, vacuum the living room, or even help me assemble furniture. I honestly had no idea that the moment I said, “Can you help me with this? Your dad’s not here anymore.” I unknowingly placed an invisible cape of responsibility on my child.

I was distracted by my problems following my divorce from his father that I didn’t see the subtle shift in the dynamic of our relationship. What was once a sweet boy’s natural desire to help his mother became an unconscious obligation. It took me some time to realize that my young prince was trying to fill the shoes of a King. I couldn’t help but examine how I made him feel this way. It’s fine for him to help out, but it’s not OK if the responsibilities negatively impact his physical or mental health, schoolwork, or friendships.

Society conditions compel young boys to care for their single mothers, and children naturally want to please us. When one member of the family is absent, another one steps into their place. However, when we blur the lines of a parent-child relationship and accept a role reversal, it can create an unhealthy dependence. How many times have you heard someone say things like, Take care of your mom, You’re the man of the house, or something I even said far more than I realized, You’re in charge.

The reality is, no, you are not in charge. I am. You are not a mini man, and we are not equals. You are not my partner nor my friend. You are my SON.

When we ask our children to play the role of an adult, it’s equivalent to handing your car keys to a 5-year-old. While they may seem capable of reasoning or performing the task, their brains are not developed enough to handle the level of responsibility. Generally, someone’s brain is not fully developed until their mid-20s.

As a therapist, often, when I work with someone who is developmentally stuck, they played a parental role at a very young age and were frequently depended upon for emotional support or companionship. As a child, one may feel special when this occurs. However, there can be long-term consequences if a child prioritizes the needs of their parents. This behavior can be carried into their adult relationships and present as depression, anxiety, and compulsive caregiving. Treating your son as anything other than your son undermines your role as a parent.

Some signs that your son may be taking on responsibilities of a partner

  • You talk to your son about financial issues.

  • You rely on your son for emotional support.

  • You allow your son to tell you what he is going to do.

  • Your son foregoes plans with his friends to be with you.

  • Your son mediates conflicts between you and their father.

  • You confide in your son about your romantic relationships.

  • Your son takes on financial responsibilities for you or your home.

  • Your son asks questions about where you are going and what you are doing.

If some of these things happen in your house, it’s OK! Acknowledging the problem is the first step to fixing the problem. When I recognized that I was treating my son more like an adult than a child, I made changes to ensure he could experience childhood. I made more time for playtime. I provided structures and routines. I made him feel safe and secure. I allowed him to share and talk about his emotions. I recognize that I am raising future men that I hope will continue to be caring, respectful, and emotionally healthy. I know they will all be great husbands one day, but they will never act like they are mine!

Rebekka Hughes

Rebekka Hughes, MA, LPC, NCC, is a single mom of three boys from Detroit, MI. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Play Therapist, and founder of CGL Wellness Group. She specializes in trauma-informed care in her work with children, adolescents, and women. She can be found at ms. _rebekka on Instagram and cglwellnessgroup.com.

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