Unhealthy Alliances – Making Your Child Your Source of Support/Love

I have to say up front that I don’t think I’ve ever done this—not because I haven’t wanted to—but because I saw my mother do this with my sister and learned how destructive it can be!
You might think, Well, what’s wrong with loving your child or turning to them for support from time to time? Yeah, I know. This one seems all nice and healthy on the surface. But let me tell ya, it’s like building a treehouse in the branches of a sapling. Allow me to explain…
When I was a child, my teenage sister served as my mother’s source of emotional support and validation. My father was a pastor and workaholic who was rarely home. And when he was home, he didn’t know how to relate to any of our family members—least of whom was his wife.
Because of that, my mother felt rejected and abandoned, which left her with the desire to lean on my wise-beyond-her-years sister. This created a huge and unhealthy burden on my sister (sapling) who was much too young to be hearing all the marriage woes of my mother, much less helping her to sort through them all.
Psychologists call this unhealthy alliance – Emotional Incest.
Yeah, rather strong words, wouldn’t you say? But not when you realize the full weight of what this type of relational dynamic has on a life. It certainly sets you up as a “Codependent in Training.” But there’s more!
It also has harmful effects on the family.
My father never said this, but I think he felt ostracized in time by this strong bond between my sister and my mom. Even when he was around, my mother would complain about him to my sister literally behind his back. (He was hard of hearing, so that was easy to do!)
I was also negatively impacted. I felt abandoned by everyone due to the fact that my father was gone much of the time, and my mother and sister were often cloistering themselves off in a bedroom to cry on each other’s shoulders. I won’t even begin to explain all the implications that that has had on my personality development and relational style! But suffice it to say . . .
This unhealthy alliance splinters the family because the foundation of a family should be the marriage between the husband and wife.

Whenever there is an “interloper” (a term that Dr. Phil likes to use and is especially appropriate here) between a husband and wife, the marriage begins to erode. And as I mentioned earlier, putting this kind of emotional weight on a child/teen about adult issues between the child’s two parents is tantamount to incest!

So the next time you want to turn to your child for the emotional support, validation or the love that should be sought from your spouse, consider telling your spouse about your frustrations.

If it’s too difficult to talk to your spouse, then by all means, seek the help of a counselor and/or a trusted, spiritually strong friend. And most of all, don’t forget that God wants to (and can) fully carry your emotional burdens. Unfortunately, we often look to humans to give us the kind of satisfaction that only God can give.
But, most of all, don’t strap your child with this kind of emotional burden! It’s like building a treehouse in the branches of a sapling!

2 responses to “Unhealthy Alliances – Making Your Child Your Source of Support/Love”

  1. This is So powerful, Beth. Choosing our own support OVER our child’s sense of security. I REALLY don’t think people have any idea the type of emotional bonds we place on our children. My daughter is one of those “Old Souls”. She is so easy to talk to, and holds the counselor role among her friends. I HAVE to remind myself she is ONLY 14!


  2. Thanks, Kimberly – I’ve seen this dynamic showing up in other ways than just asking for counsel and support. I didn’t have time to talk about all the ways it can play out in a parent-child relationship. Maybe I’ll explore this topic a bit more later. But, you’re right. It is hard not to want to turn to our wise and ever-supportive children. Someday they may be ready for that kind of role, but even then it cannot replace the connection we need to have and develop with our spouses. Congrats on having such a mature 14 year old!


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