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When you think of the word “caretaking”, what do you think of? Perhaps you think of a parent caring for a young child or an elderly grandparent. Although these are certainly examples of caretaking, when it comes to your relationship with your teen, caretaking isn’t necessarily a good thing. Caretaking in this type of relationship is often a misguided act of love. However, what it leads to is a relationship where your teen becomes dependent on you to make all of his/her decisions and to solve his/her problems. This hampers your teen’s ability to grow and learn by developing independence and building problem-solving skills.

What Does a Caretaking Relationship Look Like?

Often caretakers do what they do because they believe taking care of someone will make them feel needed. Caretakers may also enjoy the role of caretaking because it gives them opportunities to forget their own needs and problems, to focus on another’s. The problem with caretaking is that the caretaker often sees the other person as weaker, broken, or unable to care for him/herself. While there are situations when this is the case (such as caring for a baby or a sickly relative), this type of relationship is damaging to an otherwise healthy and able teen.

Recognizing a caretaking relationship can be tricky but here are some things caretakers do:

  • Keep people in a dependent relationship
  • “Look good” on the surface but are really manipulating others to control them
  • Make themselves the person that others NEED to go to when there is a problem
  • Keep others from looking rationally at their lives and progressing
  • Enable behaviors and keep others in negative patterns
  • Bail others out from major problems, which gives both in the relationship a lack of independence and personal autonomy
  • Become frustrated when they are working harder than those they are “caring” for
  • Look at their advice as wise and get offended when the advice is not take

Negative effects of caretaking include:

  • Placing the control and responsibility on the caretaker, rather than the teen
  • Taking away the teen’s accountability
  • Creating a codependent relationship for both people
  • Building an emotionally unsafe environment by not establishing boundaries and allowing a loss of control
  • Robbing the teen of the power of self-determination and fostering a sense of helplessness and inability to care for him/herself
  • Manipulating by the use of gifts, favors, exceptions, and special attention to give the caretaker respect, honor, approval and acceptance

Some common thinking errors a caretaker may experience includes “I do this because I love him/her”; “I just can’t stand to see him/her fail, get into trouble, or get hurt”; “If he/she doesn’t succeed in life, it will be my fault”; “People expect me to take care of them and I can’t let them down”; and “I know more, have more experience, and am wiser, so he/she needs my resources, help and advice to get him/her through this problem.”

As a parent, certainly there are times when you need to intervene, especially if your teen is at risk of engaging in self-destructive behaviors. However, respecting your teen’s autonomy and ability to make his/her own decisions is important to having a healthy relationship with him/her. You can’t fix everything, even if you try, and you’ll wear yourself out in the process.

Instead of having a caretaking relationship, focus on building a caring relationship. Caring relationships facilitate healing. To foster a caring relationship, you do need to provide basic needs for your teen, such as food, clothing, security, and love. But you also provide opportunities for growth. For more on how to build a caring relationship, read Creating Healthy Relationships.

Diagnose Your Relationship

After learning about caretaking relationships, think about your relationship with your family members. For those who are old enough to have personal responsibility, does your relationship with them have any caretaking traits? If so, write down ways you will manage your caretaking tendency and give those family members more opportunity for growth.