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Understanding Parent-Child Dynamics in Romantic Relationships| 4.5.2023

In this episode, Kristen talks about what a parent-child dynamic looks like, how it plays out in romantic relationships and how to work through it.

You'll Learn

  • Why do we take on the parent/child roles in our relationships
  • What to do when your inner child comes out in your marriage
  • How to change the parent-child dynamic in a relationship
  • The role of a healthy adult in romantic relationships


Life Transitions with Lois Bushong 

14 Signs You Were a Parentified Child 

For counseling services near Indianapolis, IN, visit www.pathwaystohealingcounseling.com.

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This information is being provided to you for educational and informational purposes only. It is being provided to you to educate you about ideas on stress management and as a self-help tool for your own use. It is not psychotherapy/counseling in any form.


Welcome to the Close the Chapter Podcast. I am Kristen Boice a licenced Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice Pathways to Healing Counselling. Through conversations, education, strategies and shared stories, we will be closing the chapter on all the thoughts, feelings, people and circumstances that don't serve you anymore. And open the door to possibilities and the real you. You won't want to miss an episode, so be sure to subscribe


Welcome to this week's Close the Chapter Podcast. It's been a while since I've done a solo episode. So this week, I'm going to be talking about parent child dynamics in intimate romantic relationships. And it's something I see almost with every couple I work with in therapy, and I thought it would be helpful to break down what does a parent dynamic parent child dynamic look like? How did I arrive at this in terms of noticing this pattern? And the roles people can take in their relationships? And then how do we work through it? So this is definitely an episode you're gonna want to listen to pass it along to anyone else. That's an A Couplehood. Whether it's friends, co workers, neighbours, perhaps it's your own children. Feel free to share this episode because I want to have more of a global conversation on how did we even get in these roles to be a parent function as a parent in the dynamic or a child and the dynamic? And then how do we break that cycle. So we're going to be diving deep into this topic. And so I'm so glad you're here today. Before we jump in, feel free to jump on my mailing list, grab the journal at Kristen k, r i s t e n, d Boice boice.com, forward slash free resources. So you can get the free journal and join the mailing list. Every Wednesday, a new newsletter comes out with links to helpful articles, podcasts, videos, a plethora of helpful information that could make a difference in your healing journey. And hopefully it does. And then I make announcements there. And I'm working on several things for this year to launch. So you'll be first to know if you're on the mailing list. So without further ado, let's jump into the topic of parent child relationships. What do I mean by parent child dynamics in a marriage in a romantic relationship and an intimate relationship, this can even play out in friendships. So I want to broaden the scope of the conversation. So you can begin to identify where do you fall? Are you more of a parent in the relationship? Or the child? Or are you functionally like an adult, and you're not in a parent child dynamic. So years ago, I've had Lois Bushong on the podcast way early on, if you want to go back to listen to that about multicultural Third Culture kids, so we can link that episode in the show notes. But it's fairly early on, she would make this term up called Pac Man. And I was like, What is Pac Man, because I think of the video game. And she would map out on one side of the sheet of paper, she would put p for parent, a for adult, C for child. And then on the other side of the paper, she would put P A C parent adult child. And we would start mapping out cases that I was working on about who fell into the parent who fell into the adult and who fell into the child. So the parent role is usually someone who kind of is the leader in the family is the leader in the system. And they may or may not have control of certain things like the finances, perhaps they have control over retirement or insurance or they have different roles. I'm just giving you some examples. And then we have the adult self and this functions as someone that feels pretty secure with who they are. They're not functioning from a caretaker role. They feel like they are an equal relationship adult to adult. That's the ideal scenario. So for looking at the page, we would circle A to A adult to adult is the ideal relationship we want to be in with our romantic partner. That person has a secure attachment. They can say how they feel they can communicate in a healthy way they can connect to emotions and communicate often with I feel statements sharing how they feel they feel competent in communication. There's not a lot of threats in terms of themselves, they don't feel threatened, that someone's going to leave or abandon or reject them, they feel fairly secure with who they are. And so that's the adult self, then we have the child self, the child self typically is stuck in an inner child part. So they may have felt powerless in their family system. And this could get triggered at different times. And the trigger again, is something we carry into the relationships. So for example, if they feel overpowered by their partner, they may feel like that person is the parent in their functioning more like the child. So they may under function where the parent role may over function. So they may feel like a teenager and feel like Don't tell me what to do. I'm sick of you feeling like you're my mother, or you're my Father, don't parent me, that typically will tip me off that someone's functioning from a younger part. And then if I have someone functioning from the parental part I'm looking at, why are they over functioning, were they the parental FIDE child, I did a whole episode on that. So I'll link that in the show notes to other the parental fi child where they had to take responsibility, and they had to be the parent and their family system, meaning they had to take on a lot more responsibility. Maybe they had a caregiver, their siblings, perhaps they had to emotionally be kind of pseudo spouse to their parent, because maybe a parent died or there was a divorce, or there is much discord or abuse between their parents. So they stepped in and maybe played a protector role. And they take on a lot of the responsibilities and function, again, from over responsible. And sometimes it's about power and control dynamics. So the child, typically under functions, and then gets very angry. And that can be silent anger, or they stuffed it down or can be outward anger and not wanting to be told what to do. Or they may be in a more submissive role. So they may not have been able to individuate and separate. It's called differentiation, meaning they had a voice, they felt empowered to say how they felt, they were able to have different opinions, they were able to use curiosity to explore what do they want, how do they really feel about concepts, beliefs, anything in their life, they were allowed to do that exploration piece. And it wasn't a threat to the system, meaning the system could tolerate them questioning beliefs, they could tolerate them, saying how they feel, even if they disagreed, the system their parents could tolerate that they felt secure enough, the parents felt secure enough in who they were that they could tolerate questioning, curiosity, exploration, difference of opinions, different emotions were welcomed. If that wasn't allowed, sometimes we have what's called the rest of development. So we might be stuck as a team, we might be stuck at seven or younger. And so we unconsciously pick a partner, because it's normal for us to kind of be parented that way, or controlled, that we simultaneously seamlessly will pick a partner that just subconsciously feels similar. It feels comfortable, even though we may not like it. And so the child doesn't have nor does the parent have healthy communication skills, isn't able to say how they feel in a healthy way express their needs, express their desires, they're pretty shut down and have a lot of defence mechanisms, I did a whole episode on defence mechanisms, it's also important to explore when you're looking at parent child dynamics that we'll get to in a minute, because the defence mechanisms block the process to move towards being a secure adult, you stay in the inner child, you stay in the parent role, because communication is stunted communication isn't effective, because they don't have the tools on how to communicate and work through it. So if I have a younger part, meaning a younger, Arrested Development part that didn't have a voice, and they're functioning at a younger age, just emotionally because they're afraid to speak up, and the partner isn't afraid to speak up. So they immediately take into this parent child dynamic, where the child might, the person in the partnership might feel like I'm stupid, I'm an idiot, they think I'm an idiot. They think I'm not competent, they think I can't handle things because it feels like a younger part that they're interacting with. And they're also potentially the parent, the person that's in the parent role may also be stunted because they didn't get the option or the availability to play to have fun. Neither did the child roles. So both are stuck developmentally in a different way. And I don't mean stuck as in like permanently. It's a recognition of am I stuck and how old am I stuck at? So what does a parent child dynamic setup it sets up an unequal relational dynamic, it means typically the person that's functioning like the child or feels like they're the child takes a one down position, a powerless position where the parent is almost in a one up position. It's how the dynamic got set up. So the person that feels like they're the parent has a little more control, although they don't feel like they're really in a healthy dynamic, because most people want adult to adult relationship, but don't know how to get there. We can't change the dynamic until we recognise I am meaning yourself, how are you functioning in the relationship? Are you functioning like the parent? Are you functioning like the child, when did that begin in your life, that you started functioning like a parent, you took on a lot of responsibilities, and we don't have to pick on our parents. But if you had to grow up quickly, if you were maybe in an alcoholic system, chances are you took on a parental role and you don't trust a lot of people, you have a lot of trust issues, because your needs didn't get mad, and you had to take care of yourself, you became hyper independent, super responsible, or perhaps that you this could be someone else that was abused. And they never want to feel like they're in the one down position. Okay, because that felt like they had no power, they lost control, they never want to feel like that again. So they again, take the one up position, which is the parental position, they don't want to give that up because they don't trust people and or they don't want to ever feel like they're in that one down position again. So it's hard for them to give up and work through this role, because that feels like it has kept them safe. So sometimes people equal power, with safety. And that makes sense, especially as children when we are power less, we want to feel like we have some control in sometimes it's because we had to take care of ourselves. Because we had absent parents, perhaps you didn't have emotionally available parents, and you had to be completely centred, that would say, so your parent was okay. Let's say you had a very overwhelmed parent, maybe there was a single parent situation and they were overwhelmed. So you try to keep the peace. You tried to be the one that didn't have any needs that needed to be met. But you are accommodating Mom or Dad, you are protecting Mom and Dad, you are caretaking mom and dad. And this could put you in the parent or the child position. I want to make sure I'm noting that child position usually feels pretty powerless, maybe a lot of shame not feeling smart enough good enough defective unworthy, maybe fear of failure, abandonment, or rejection. And so you kind of placate perform pretend perfect to try to gain love worthiness, attention, validation acknowledgement. And so you take that kind of submissive role into a marriage, and I hate that word submissive. But sometimes people have been conditioned into that, or it wasn't safe enough to say how you really felt because then you would be shunned, disconnected from a parent. So you felt really powerless. So developmentally, you got stuck because you couldn't individuate and separate and so both the parent and the child are stuck on individuation and separation, because their needs were not met. This is not to blame a parent. How do we ultimately heal developmental wounds? Well, many ways. There's not one way to heal developmental wounds. One is leaning into the discomfort of facing our pain and our sadness and our grief over not getting our needs met, not getting the parent we wanted or needed, and really leaning into that deep guttural grief over that, too, is recognising that when we do our growth work, we will lead ourselves to freedom. Will it happen overnight? No. That's the misnomer about therapy. People kind of want drive through therapy now. Like Amazon Prime me, and I'm like I'm sorry. This isn't how therapy works. Sometimes there's one off events and we can do some e m Dr. Eye Movement, desensitisation reprocessing, which is a form of trauma treatment. Often it's a deeper dive into inner child work. I'm going to be frank, because we all have inner child wounds. It's impossible for our parents to meet every need. The key I work with people on is being able to connect to their emotions become our own mother and father. I just had a conversation today with a friend and we were talking about our own parental pain. And I said one of the things I now can do is I can now mother myself, the way I wanted my mother to Mother me and I'm telling you that she has a therapy, and it's the greatest freedom you can have. Does it mean that I still don't grieve over having a mother that was more emotionally available that wasn't leading on me to be a certain way to meet her needs that couldn't see past her own pain to be able to see mine. Yeah, I still have grief and it comes up. And I can now acknowledge the little girl inside and say, Oh, sweetheart, your mom was hurting and your mom was in pain. And you can acknowledge that. And it's okay for you to feel sad that you wanted that mother so deeply to be able to acknowledge how you feel. And maybe it's a father wound doesn't just have to be a mother wound. Many of us have father wounds, Lea mother wounds, and we can become the nurturing parent, the parent that actually sees you let you question things let you have curiosity, and celebrates in that celebrate your authentic self encourages you to have all your parts come to the table, meaning all these feelings are welcome, I can do that. Now. For myself, I have now become my own internalised mother figure and parent to myself. So when I'm in pain, is it hard? Yes, no question about it. Now I have the tools through doing my own deeper inner child work, to be able to nurture myself and offer myself compassion and so much love and grace and understanding that I am a human being with thoughts, feelings, emotions, pain, hurts, fears. And I can start working through that in a relationship. What I see people do, this is so important for us to recognise is we come into the relationship with these wounds, okay, we didn't get all our needs met, we want to be seen, we want to be heard, we want to be understood. We want someone to listen to us, accept us for who we really are. We want to have the freedom to grow and get curious and express ourselves and be celebrated in that we want words of affirmation, we want hugs, or maybe you don't want hugs depending on your trauma. But we want certain things we want these unmet needs to be met. And we have the fantasy that the person we pick is now going to come in and heal these wounds and meet our needs and love us the way our parents weren't able, or maybe we have a recreation of a movie we've seen, we think that's romance as a sham, not one person is gonna come in and heal all these parts, because that's not fair. You're projecting unmet needs onto your partner. And they might not have the tools, the skills, the know how to do that. It's not their job now is the icing on the cake and very healing to be in a secure, loving adult relationship. 100% That is true. If I'm going into the relationship with the mindset that this person is going to meet all my needs. And then I am upset, I am hurt. I don't feel understood. I don't feel seen because this person hasn't met all my needs. Were setting up an unhealthy dynamic. We're almost projecting our unmet needs in this need for this certain type of parent that was emotionally available words of affirmation, healthy touch, you know hugs, and they were able to look at us as infants and COO at us. And they were able to celebrate us and offer us empathy and compassion, all these things we wanted. We then come into the relationship thinking I really need this person to do these things. Yet, we hope we can get there and build up enough tools to be able to meet our partner's needs, but you're not going to be able to do that until you meet your own. So we project this idealised parent on to our partner and we're setting it up for a complete disaster because many people don't have the skill set. That's why two months into dating my husband, if you've listened to this podcast, you already know I was like we're going to premarital counselling because he's like, I think I love you and I want a future with you. And I'm like, oh, kiddo. Okay, we have got to deal with our family of origin or patterns when it comes to relationships, our defence mechanisms, how do I deal with hurt and pain? Do I lead with criticism, anger shut down. stonewalling. What do I do withdrawing to handle hurt and pain? When I think you're hurting me or when you aren't listening to me, what am I doing? How am I showing up? We have to look at the relationship we had with both of our parents. How was your relationship with your mother or your primary caregiver, your father, a step parent, your siblings? How was their relationship? Did you witness them have a parent child dynamic? Who was the parent who was the child? And I can tell you I can name my own family system. Parent Child dynamic. My mother wanted my dad there now divorced to be And basically the parents she didn't get. And he didn't have it to offer because he came from also trauma. And so it set up this unhealthy unrealistic dynamic that they weren't able to repair. And if we can start noticing if we have a parent child dynamic, are you the parent? Are you the child? Or are you functioning like the healthy adult where you can have hard conversations, you can lean into discomfort, you're not numbing it with alcohol, or drugs, or pornography, or shopping gambling? mean, the list is social media, the list is endless. Are you able to face your emotions? process them, even though they're uncomfortable and hard? Are you able to talk to your partner about deep feelings? Are you able to share about your childhood? Are you able to explore and get curious about your own way you show up in the world and your defence mechanisms? Are you able to take ownership and accountability for your own behaviour, I'm not saying over own things that aren't yours, then you're functioning from a healthy adult. And I must say you can fluctuate between your healthy adult and then being your inner child, within matter of moments, I'm looking at what is the role you typically play in your relationships, especially romantic relationships. This is where our all of our inner child parts usually get activated, are you functioning like the parent feel like you're doing everything, you have to be in charge, or you want power and control that may not resonate how I'm saying that power and control, but you really want to feel like you're capable and competent. And maybe you've been in this role for a while, if you're functioning from the parent role. When did it begin low back to early childhood, I can see how I started to kind of at one point be the parent and I can shift into child to let's not mince, that we can stay permanently in parent or permanently in child I can fluctuate but in general, I became overly responsible when my parents got divorced, I took on a role of kind of prenta phi child, my sister did too in some ways. So it doesn't mean was just one of us. And then as I've done my own work, I think I'm functioning now from adult, but I can quickly go to my inner child. And I have to recognise when did I shift? And I need to float back and say how do I feel? And start nurturing that younger part of me? So if you're functioning from a parent role, when did it begin? How old were you? And look at all your relationships you've been in? And let's see, have you function like the parent not to say you don't fluctuate and kind of go into your inner child at times I'm looking at patterns. If you function like the adult, chances are you had a pretty securely attached relationship, or you've done a lot of therapy or healing work to shift that into an adult. And then how do you work through when your inner child comes up? Are you able to nurture that part? When did you shift into your adult self, where you could share how you feel communicate in a healthy way? Or if you're in the child role? Low back? See, when that started out? Did you feel powerless in the family system? How did you get into the child role? And how long has it been playing out in your life? And then look at your relationships? Have you always been in the child role? And let's start exploring the roots of when this developed? Because that gives you a lot of information on Really, wow, are you currently functioning in your romantic relationship today? So the first thing I want you to do is grab a pen and paper and have you write out a couple of things. One is what was your relationship with your mother? If you've listened in the podcast? These are questions I asked often. Were you in a parent or child dynamic with your mother. We want to be in a child dynamic growing up to some degree because we're children, right? So did your mother allow you to separate and individuate meaning you could have your own thoughts, feelings and opinions? You could verbalise them without retribution or disconnection. Could you express how you really felt? Or were some emotions? Okay, and someone not? We're looking at that dynamic. Number two, we're looking at the dynamic with your father, were you allowed to be yourself and express and gain curiosity? Same way we're looking at the mom relationship. Same goes for Dad, okay, then within the parent, if they were still married, where are you? What role did you play there? This is important, because we can look at how did this get carried through that you brought into the relationship you're currently in potentially, and we are looking at your ability to be comfortable and tolerate different thoughts, feelings and opinions, even if they differ from yours. Can you tolerate that someone else may not agree with you? Or does that feel a threat to the connection? And there's no right or wrong answer here. We're just exploring And it's okay how you feel no matter what it is when we look at parent adult child dynamics. If you're in a parent child dynamic, I recommend individual therapy. And after you've gotten some sea legs and individual, if you can go on to couples therapy, a good trained couples clinician would be highly recommended, where you can learn how to have healthy communication skills, communicating feelings, and then offering empathy. And we're learning how to acknowledge each other's pain. We're communicating in a way, we're not projecting, meaning I'm putting on you an unhealed part, I am actually working on me owning and accountable to my own unhealed parts. But we're learning to connect and share our pain with each other, and possibly what might help the pain more. So that might look like you saying, I am so grateful for you. And I feel sad, when you shut down what I experienced was shut down. Because the story I'm making up is you really are disgusted with me. I'm making this up, but you get the idea, I'm able to communicate. And you learn how to hold the space for the other person and tolerate that most people are functioning from their own pain, most people are functioning from their own unhealed wounds. Think about that most people are functioning from their unhealed wounds. And that's certainly the case and a parent child dynamic. That's why it's so important for you to do the inner child work. A book I will recommend is homecoming I've mentioned it before, by Dr. John Bradshaw. It's called homecoming by Dr. John Bradshaw. And it goes through the developmental cycle of what, from infancy, toddlerhood to teens, to adult and what you might be longing for. In each of those stages of development, I highly recommend going that that direction. And we have to start acknowledging your own contribution to the dynamic, maybe share this episode with your partner and start talking about your childhoods and the roles you've played, and how that's impacted, maybe the need for control, or maybe the need to not feel out of control or to have some power or this need to have a voice to be heard. And start having deeper conversations about how that has impacted you. And how that has created defence mechanisms to prevent connection and shifting out of a parent role or a child role. So a lot of work on attachment. In this there's another great book I recommend called attached by Amir Levine. And that's a great book on how attachment plays into romantic relationships. I highly recommend if you're dating anybody, or any kind of relationship, please read homecoming. Listen to this podcast start having more in depth exploration of family dynamics. I cannot emphasise this enough. People don't want to go back to their past. I'm not saying live in your past, you have to understand how did you get to function, the way you do or react the way you do when you're triggered? Or what role you take on in your marriage, you have to unpack family dynamics. That's how generational patterns happen. We haven't unpacked any generational dynamics at all. It's one of the things I feel super passionate about is exploring relational family dynamics and roles people took I actually did an episode on family roles very early on in the podcast, we'll try to link that I put a lot of links in here. But we have talked about these subjects before, we just haven't really took a deep dive into the parent child dynamic. So there's so much more to explore. But this is a high level overview of exploring your own role and a relationship. If you have an adult relationship fantastic. Keep going keep expanding your level of connection within yourself. So then that will translate to your partner keep having a growth mindset. And just know I'm cheering you on to keep going in your healing journey. Don't give up even when it's painful and uncomfortable. You will change lives you will change your own life your kids lives. And the person you're meant to be with can handle the evolution of yourself can handle the expansion. Try to have some deeper conversations. Work on your own fears and hesitations work on your own need for control and on attaching to outcomes. There's so much work we all have to do to live the life we want. Everyone says I just want them to be happy meaning our kids or ourselves that my happiness comes and goes folks. What we want is inner contentment and To feel secure with ourselves, then we feel secure with decisions. We can look at the roles we're playing in relationships, and we can make changes. You're here for a reason. I believe that you matter, you're important, and you are lovable no matter what the shame story wants to say. And the fact that you're willing to do this deeper dive into whether you're in a parent child dynamic, and walking you through how to change it, get the resources, keep going. If you need extra help, a good therapist, will walk you through some of this deeper work. Thanks for listening,


and I'll see you next week. Thank you so much for listening to the close the chapter podcast. My hope is that you took home some actionable steps, along with motivation, inspiration and hope for making sustainable change in your life. If you enjoyed this episode, click the subscribe button to be sure to get the updated episodes every week and share it with a friend or family member. For more information about how to get connected visit kristendboice.com. Thanks and have a great day.