Parent/Child Communication

What Is Your Role in Your Relationship?
Are you playing the parent or the child in your relationship?

Posted Oct 16, 2017

Very often, couples get into trouble when one person takes the role of a parent, and the other the role of a child. Breaking down this dynamic can shed light on how it may be infiltrating our relationship and diminishing our love, respect, and attraction to our partner. Here, we will explore what parental and childish behavior looks like between a couple and what we can do to change it.

Many of us can relate to scenarios in which one partner is being parental; that is, being instructive, superior, or even disciplinary in their style of relating. They may offer a lot of advice or assistance based on a general inclination to take care of or direct the other person. They may frequently overstep boundaries and do too much for their partner, often seeing the other person critically, as helpless or irresponsible. A parental partner may have a tendency to be corrective, telling the other person what he or she “should” do or “should have” done. In response, their partner is often frustrated, offended, or defiant.

Conversely, the partner in a more childish role may cry, fall apart, or use passive-aggressive strategies to get their way. They often feel victimized by their partner. They may even feel helpless or reliant on their partner. They may behave in ways that are incompetent or irresponsible, provoking their partner and inciting the other person to step in and take over. When confronted, the childish person may feel easily hurt or sulk, which is more likely to elicit a parental reaction from their resentful partner.

It’s easy to see how either person caught up in one side of this dynamic would trigger the other, creating a painful repetitive cycle. Like most couple conflicts, it’s hard to place blame, because both people have valid complaints about the other. The best thing to do in this case is to catch on to the pattern itself and recognize the ways we perpetuate the cycle by playing out our half of it. To do this, we should look at the specific behaviors associated with the parent-child dynamic, as well as the behavior we should strive for to enjoy an equal relationship.

The most basic tendency in this pattern is for the parental person to feel the need to control the other and for the person in a more childish mode to feel dominated. The goal, of course, should be equality, with each person valuing the other’s autonomy, individuality, and independence.

Passive and dependent vs. driven and compulsive.

A person in a childish role will often be more passive and dependent, looking to be directed by others or to be taken care of by their partner. A parental partner may be more likely to push themselves and others to achieve what they “should.” This is often done in a driven and critical way that can feel controlling. The aim of both individuals, rather, should be to be proactive and self-assertive in their own lives and goals, thinking ahead and going after what they want.

Defensive and angry vs. rigid and righteous.

A parental partner can be closed off to other points of view, defensive, or even punishing when they receive feedback. They may counterattack self-righteously in relation to suggestions or criticism. When a partner is in a childish mode, they may tend to fall apart and become self-hating or sulky when they’re given feedback. It’s helpful for both people to try to remain non-defensive and open toward each other. In an adult-mode, both people are curious and willing to explore input from their partner, and both welcome constructive criticism that can help them grow individually and in their relationship.

Covert negative power vs. domineering.

Someone assuming a parental role can often be bossy. Sometimes they may even become abusive of power, intimidating others through anger or aggression. A person who feels like a child in the situation may attempt to manipulate others by playing the victim. This person can control others through weakness and may fall apart in an effort to get what he or she wants. Both of these patterns are destructive. Instead of asserting power over the other, each person should strive to have personal power, in which they both take full control over every part of their existence and change any behavior or traits that they dislike. If they develop a sense of personal power, both people will feel stronger in themselves and know they can affect their own lives.

We need to start with compassion for ourselves. Our tendency to act childish or parental arose from defenses we formed to adapt and survive in our early lives. These adaptations may have served us well in childhood, but they are hurting and limiting us in our adult relationships. When we engage in parental or childish behavior, we are perpetuating an unhealthy dynamic. However, catching on to the ways we engage in these patterns and actively challenging them can truly transform our relationship. It may cause us anxiety to be more vulnerable, to give up the defenses of our past and show up as open adults with our partner, but by doing this, we create our best chance of achieving the real love and closeness we say we want.

By Dr. Lisa Firestone

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, an author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

*The Key to Healthy Communication

*Growing Up Forgotten

*How to Humiliate an Absolute Narcissist

*Understanding Intrusive Thoughts

Psychology Today

The Key to Healthy Communication

Many couples fall into a parent/child dynamic where one is advising and instructing the other. Even though the intent is not hostile, it is fundamentally disrespectful to speak to another adult in a condescending and superior manner. Speaking about yourself prevents either partner from playing the role of parent or child.


One last bit of advice: Give up the need to be right. A conversation with your partner is not a battle that you have to win. You don’t have anything to prove. You know that working things out between you can be a messy process, and you expect to have reactions. You may become angry and frustrated, or something your partner says may provoke you. But through it all, remember that your goal is to repair your relationship and not further alienate each other.

When you and your partner communicate with each other by speaking personally about yourselves, and listen with respect and genuine interest, many of the trivial issues between you will vanish. And as inconsequential matters are minimized, the important goals will remain: preserving and growing love, respect and understanding between the two of you.

Psychology Today
Author, Tamsen Firestone