Codependency is a survival strategy born from an important relationship with someone unstable, unpredictable, and/or scary or threatening. A person with codependency HAD TO become finely attuned to another's moods, behaviors, and nonverbal cues to keep him/herself safe - sometimes this means life and death safe and sometimes this means emotionally safe.
In either case, the person with codependency learned 1) to pay close attention and 2) to behave in response to the other person in ways to keep the other person placated (be agreeable, anticipate and satisfy their needs) and/or keep themselves safe and under the radar (stay small and quiet, don't question the other's problematic behavior, don't rock the boat, etc.).
We often think about codependency in relationships as happening between adults, but codependency itself is simply a paradigm through which one comes to relate to most others in his/her life. In that way, it also shows up in relationships between codependent parents and their children.
I typically think about codependency as believing the following as truths (and behaving accordingly):
"I'm not ok unless you're ok."
"I'm not ok unless you feel ok about me."
Parental codependency is when the the parent's own codependency paradigm interferes with healthy parental decision-making and being able to set and maintain the limits and boundaries that children need.
Here are 3 signs of a Codependent Parent:
- Strong, Sudden, and Painful Emotions around Parenting
For codependent parents (like most parents) there is, on one hand, a strong desire to parent in a healthy way. On the other hand, it can feel really big, overwhelming, and even scary (think: fight or flight scary) for a codependent parent when their child becomes angry, sad, or distant. A codependent parent often cannot tolerate a child's big, emotional reactions so will be loose with rules and not enforce important boundaries and limits in order to keep the child calm and content - and, therefore, the parent calm and content.
- Over-Managing the Child's Life and/or Environment
A codependent parent's sense of self may be dependent on the child or the relationship with the child. When a codependent parent only feels ok when things are ok with the child, the codependent parent may try to rigidly control the child's environment, behavior, or appearance. Or the codependent parent may become overly involved in trying to 'fix' any hurdle or 'solve' any problem giving the child a difficult time. This over-managing functions as a way to feel a sense of control over one's own internal emotions through a proxy - the child.
- Intimacy Problems
A codependent parent can become so connected and tuned into their child that their primary relationship can become secondary. There may be a fear that the primary relationship will somehow undermine or interfere with the (unhealthy) attachment with the child. A codependent parent may subtly or overtly push their primary partner away so that they can be mostly (or solely) focused on the child.
What to do about Codependency in Parenting
If you worry that you might be bringing codependency into your parenting, the first thing to do is to be gentle with yourself. If you have a codependency paradigm through which you relate to others in your life, it's because at some point there was a very important reason for you to adapt in this way for survival.
There are lots of ways to begin to identify where codependency is showing up in your life and ways to get support around challenging your paradigm. Al-Anon focuses on supporting individuals whose codependency arose in the context of a family system with an addict. CODA (Codependents Anonymous) is a support group that generally helps individuals who desire to develop and maintain healthy familial relationships. Therapy can dig into the uniqueness of your particular story and untangle any codependency tendrils from your past that are still present in your life today.
Tips for Codependent Parents
While these may be very hard to do in a consistent way until you untangle some deeper issues, here are some ideas that can help mitigate codependency in parenting:
- Explicitly teach children that their value doesn't come from pleasing you or anyone else.
- Being mindful of safety, allow children the freedom and opportunity to explore and solve their own problems in an age-appropriate way. Manage your own feelings that come up while you experiment with this - ask for help from someone that feels safe to hold you accountable.
- Encourage and model positive self-talk.
- Practice your own self-care and model how to satisfy your own needs in a healthy way.
Interested in knowing more?
© Ellie Vargas, LCSW
Ellie Vargas, LCSW is a wife and a mama of two girls, a trekker on the bumpy trail of personal growth, and a Trauma-Informed Psychotherapist. In that order.