You may be familiar with the idea of codependency from the world of alcohol and chemical misuse. In fact, that’s where the term “codependency” was born.
Today, though, the term has broadened to include relationships. It’s sometimes connected with other kinds of codependency.
For example, a 2009 study of 171 adult females suggested that parental alcohol misuse or history of childhood abuse may make relationship-based codependency — such as the parent-child variety — more likely to happen.
But it can also occur all on its own. Here’s what you need to know about being a codependent parent — and how it puts your children at risk.
A codependent parent is one who has an unhealthy attachment to their child and tries to exert excess control over the child’s life because of that attachment.
Codependency can be found in the full range of parental relationships: A codependent father may rely on his daughter or son to keep him mentally stable and emotionally happy. A codependent mother may rely on her son or daughter to take responsibility for her physical well-being.
While codependent parents may claim that the close relationship they covet is a sign of a well-functioning family, their preoccupation with each other is a sign of dysfunction.
It’s important to realize that codependency isn’t easy to spot, according to a
If you think you may be a codependent parent, here are some signs to look out for.
In a codependent relationship, your sense of self depends on your relationship with your child.
Codependent relationships feed on a cycle of neediness: One person needs the other. Sometimes, but not always, it works both ways and the other person wants to be needed too.
Parents who are codependent may try to control their child’s life. This control can show up in different ways:
- Over-involvement. For example, if a parent sees that something painful is happening in their child’s life, they’ll try to gain control by getting involved — often too involved. That’s because the child’s pain is the parent’s pain. (This is, of course, true for all parents… within reason. We don’t like to see our kids hurting. It’s when it’s taken to the extreme that it crosses the line into codependency.)
- Inappropriate caretaking. Codependent parents will do more for their child than what is age-appropriate. For example, an 8-year-old child should be choosing their clothes to wear each morning on their own. A 16-year-old should be managing their own class schedule and homework.
- Incorrect shouldering of responsibility. Codependent parents often feel responsible for their child’s feelings and take the blame for their child’s mood swings.
Do you believe that you need to be available 24/7 for your child? If you’re a codependent parent, the first relationship that’ll likely suffer is your relationship with your partner.
Instead of investing time and energy into building a meaningful romantic relationship, you may choose to focus solely on your child. As time goes on, you may find that your sexual relationship with your partner has stagnated.
You may also find that you’re isolating yourself from your family members and friends. You’re prepared to cancel a coffee date with your BFF because your child insists that you need to take them shopping for soccer shoes.
Codependent parents may unknowingly (or knowingly but not maliciously) use many psychological strategies to get their child to do what they want:
- Passive-aggressive behavior. This is when a parent is being indirectly aggressive toward their child.
- Projection. This happens when a parent can’t handle their feelings or believes that the feelings are unacceptable. Unable to work through the feelings, the parent projects them onto their child. In this way, the parent avoids feelings of guilt, shame, or regret.
- Generating guilt. This occurs when a parent attempts to make their child feel guilty about something to pressure them into behaving how they want them to behave. An example is when a parent complains their child rarely talks about what happened at school. Remaining the victim, the parent may then say that a daily summary isn’t necessary. Often, feeling guilty, the child will reassure the parent that this isn’t a big deal and that they really want to do it. The result? The parent gets the play-by-play without having to feel guilty about it because the child reassured them it wasn’t a big deal.
Do you believe that, no matter what, you’re always right? Do you feel attacked if someone questions what you’re doing?
Codependent parents often won’t accept that they’ve done something wrong. This is because any sign of disagreement is a show of rebellion. It threatens the parent’s authority and sense of control.
We all like to share our childhood memories with our children. When done in a positive way, we can teach our children important coping skills.
For example, when you reminisce about how you drove over your neighbor’s geranium pots and then tell your child that you knocked on the neighbor’s door to offer to replace them, you’re teaching your child an important lesson about responsibility.
However, if you frame it as your neighbor making you feel ashamed and careless for years after that — despite your new driver status at the time — you may be unconsciously trying to garner sympathy from your child.
Codependent parents rely on their children to give to them, instead of giving to their children. This is known as parentification.
By continually showing your child that you were a victim, you’re relying on them to give you the emotional support you need.
Codependent parents may have a hard time disciplining their children.
Fearful that their child will reject them, they choose to let them break the boundaries they’ve set up. In these cases, the parent prefers to endure disrespect rather than risk trying to enforce boundaries and making their child angry.
In some cases, a parent may even resent it when their partner asks the child to follow the rules. For example, Dad may get angry with Mom for trying to enforce a bedtime curfew even though their child should have been in bed a good few hours earlier.
Codependent parents often have low self-esteem. Their self-esteem is dependent on their child: If their child is happy with them, they’re happy about themselves. And if their child is troubled, they’re troubled.
While it’s totally normal for a parent to have hopes and dreams for their child, codependent parents take things a step further: They expect their child to live the life and achieve the goals that they themselves fell short of.
If you immediately see red when someone suggests that you may be a codependent parent, there’s a good possibility that they’re onto something. Why is that? Denial is a defense mechanism that protects you from painful or threatening thoughts, feelings, and information.
If your relationship with your child is on track, you’re not as likely to feel threatened by someone suggesting that something is wrong.
The saddest part about denial is that it will stop you reaching out for help. And as we’re about to see, it’s important to get help.
Parent-child codependency can be emotionally abusive. The child learns that their feelings and needs are unimportant and never has the chance to develop their own personality.
An adolescent’s sense of identity is built through the choices and commitments that they make. When a codependent parent stifles the child’s ability to commit to their chosen beliefs and values, the adolescent remains with a diffused identity and never forms their own.
In addition, because parents are a child’s role models, children naturally pick up on their parents’ behaviors. This includes codependency. A child who has been controlled is more likely to become a controlling parent.
The first step in stopping codependency is to admit that it’s present.
When parents have emptied the family emotional bank account with codependent behaviors, they’ll need to be especially respectful and sensitive to their child. Especially when the child starts to express the pent-up anger that has collected.
Here are some tips to get you started.
- Practice self-care. Instead of relying on your child to take care of your needs, take steps to fulfill your own needs. As you learn to give to yourself, you’ll be able to give to your child.
- Step back. Allow your child the independence to solve age-appropriate challenges. This will give them the self-confidence to trust themselves and stretch further.
- Listen actively. Give your child your full attention when they talk to you. Reflect back what you heard. Then ask them if you heard what they wanted to say.
Where do codependent parents turn to when reaching out for help? The best practice is to dedicate time for counseling sessions with a licensed therapist who’s experienced in codependency or addiction.
But for a variety of reasons, that’s not always possible. You may also find online support groups, books, or organizations that offer helpful resources.
Be patient with yourself when you make the decision to move on to better parenting. You’re on a learning curve. Allow yourself to have some bad days, but keep moving forward.