As part of my ongoing series into all things codependency, and as a nod to Maternal Mental Health Week 2020 and Mother’s Day in the United States this Sunday (FRIENDLY REMINDER- SUNDAY IS MOTHER’S DAY!), I decided to write about codependency in parents today.
Motherhood has to be one of the biggest triggers for my codependent tendencies. I’ve joked about it before, but the fact of the matter is, little people need their parents. They need them for everything- food, water, shelter, security, love, compassion, communication, diaper changes, you name it. Everything.
And codependents love to be needed; they crave it.
Maternal Mental Health is most often thought about in terms of perinatal depression or anxiety, but that’s not all it can be. It can also be in the manifestation of codependency, particularly in first time moms that didn’t realize they had codependent parents.
Let’s go back to what codependency is one more time so we can make sure to understand how this could be relevant to moms:
Codependency is a tendency to behave in overly passive or excessively caretaking ways to an extent that negatively impacts relationships in ones life. It most often presents in being obsessively preoccupied with the needs of others. I usually can spot codependents or codependent tendencies in blurred boundaries, a loss of personal identity, and hypervigilance.
Codependents are often in relationships with narcissists or addicts, and think that they can love someone to wellness. Children of addicts often become codependent, and children of codependents often do as well. Parents can also be codependents with their adult children, particularly if those adult children are addicts. Last year when I was watching Frozen for the umpteenth time, I realized in the middle of Let It Go that Elsa and her parents had a massively unhealthy codependent relationship. That realization kind of hit me like a brick- it’s so prevalent it’s in a Disney movie and it took me watching it 2342352 times to realize it. So I thought it would be interesting to explore codependency in parents today, whether from the side of a parent or from the perspective of the child.
The best description I’ve heard of codependency is as follows: codependency is a learned survival strategy in an effort to stay emotionally safe.
Because children need us, particularly in their early years, it is often more difficult to spot codependency in our parenting styles. Because it is inherently necessary for the parent to be a caretaker and to give to their children, I’ve put together a few warning signs to look out for in examining your own (or your parents!) codependent relations.
DISCLAIMER: just because someone has some codependent traits or behaviors doesn’t mean they’re codependent. This isn’t an attempt to diagnose the world with codependency, but rather bring awareness to something that is much more common than we realize.
Signs You Might Be a Codependent Parent
You weaponize guilt- The main ways I’ve seen this present itself are passive aggressive behavior, projection, and mind games. When you deny something exists within yourself and then push that behavior onto your child, that is codependent parenting. If you avoid direct conversation, evade problems or confrontation, make excuses, or blame others, you might be a codependent parent. If you don’t allow your child to fully live their life by interfering in how they parent or the intricacies of their marriage, and then use that against them, you might be a codependent parent. This is usually done in an effort to control the child’s behavior. For example, you want your child to come spend Mother’s Day at your house but they instead wish to spend it alone. Communicating your desire for them to spend Mother’s Day with you is healthy, adding that “well, if you don’t want to then that’s up to you, I only want you to come if you want to” is a way of using guilt to manipulate the behavior. If that’s something you do, then you might be a codependent parent. If something along the lines of, “I do X for you, you can’t do this one thing for me!” or “If you loved me, you would please do X,” you are probably a codependent parent.
You’re never wrong (and if you are, you don’t apologize)- Codependent parents do not usually admit when they are wrong. If they do, it is usually a generic or insincere apology that is more self-serving than because they care about the hurt of the child. Any disagreement is seen as a threat to their authority or act of rebellion by the child. If you find yourself offering up “I’m sorry you feel that way” like responses when your children talk to you about things, you might be a codependent parent.
Other Relationships take a back seat- If you have a codependent relationship with your child, you will likely find that other relationships in your life take a back seat. Your relationship with your spouse will take a backseat because it will likely get in the way of your codependent relationship with your child. If you place your child ahead of your marriage (assuming you are married to the other parent of the child, doesn’t work as much in blended families), then you are probably a codependent parent. If you have to tell lies for your child or keep things from your spouse, big or small, about your child, then you are most likely a codependent parent.
The Victim– Do you feel personally offended when your children make a choice that you don’t want them to make? While this is most obvious when your children become adults, as they’re absolutely free to make their own decisions, it also presents earlier in childhood too. If you feel like your children practicing their religion differently than you do means that you were a failure, then you are probably a codependent parent. If you think your children being Republican when you’re a bleeding liberal is an assault to your parenting, you are probably a codependent parent. If you think that your children’s choices- whether dating someone, moving somewhere, how they raise their kids… – if you take any of that personally, you are probably a codependent parent.
Living vicariously- This manifests when parents have an expectation for their children to live the way they wish they had. Do you put your child in dance class because you wanted to be a ballerina and suffered an injury and couldn’t? Did you have your kid on every soccer team and have a two hour conversation to and from each game about their performance because you wanted to be a soccer player and just weren’t good enough? If your answer is yes- then you are probably a codependent parent. Codependent parents tend to live vicariously through their children as a way to seek compensation for things missing from their childhood. While its normal for a parent to have hopes and dreams for their child, in the codependent parent it is more about what the parent wants than what the child wants.
You need to be in control– Because the parent’s sense of self Is dependent on their relationship with their child, the codependent parent tries to control the child, even if it doesn’t seem like control to them. Codependent parents try to become overly involved in an attempt to gain control. It is a way to relieve their own feelings of insecurity and discomfort. If you find that you are invested in the decisions your child makes as if they are your own, you might be a codependent parent. If you find that you are constantly trying to take actions to “save” your children from making a huge mistake, you are probably a codependent parent. You cannot save someone from learning or healing, you can only prevent or delay the inevitable experience.
Dangers of Codependent Parenting
I hesitated to write this section because I didn’t want anyone, my own parents included, to read this and think I am trying to say that any or all of my problems are their fault or that I feel traumatized. In fact, in writing about trauma and trauma bonds, I usually am extremely self conscious because most people associate trauma/trauma bonds with abuse. But it’s really about wounds- Psychology generally recognizes five childhood wounds as trauma- 1) fear of abandonment, 2) fear of rejection, 3) fear of betrayal, 4) fear of humiliation, and 5) fear of injustice. When I speak of trauma, I am referring to any one of the wounds that I have in those categories above.
There are dangers to codependent parents for both the parent and the child.
For the codependent parent, the danger is in losing yourself and other relationships. It’s in modeling codependency for your children, thereby teaching your children to have codependent relations with others when they get older. More than anything, the danger is in losing the child, particularly if the child endures a healing process and the parent isn’t willing, able or ready to. By making the child the center of the parent’s universe, by trying to protect them from the world, by shrinking yourself to serve them… that doesn’t serve either of you well. If children don’t see their parents take care of themselves or constantly putting their needs in the background, they will do that in their relationships with other adults as well. It also most often has the opposite intended effect- it doesn’t help the child, it harms them in perpetuity.
For the child, a codependent parent or parents can bring a lasting negative impact on their mental health and future relationships. Parents play a huge role in helping their children develop emotionally and mentally. If a parent is emotionally or mentally reliant on a child for their source of happiness, stability, or self-esteem, that can create a severe emotional toll for the child. When a parent’s happiness is in the child’s hands, and a parent loses control of the child, there is a recipe for disaster.
Codependency is almost always a learned trait; children pick up on it from their parents modeling of it to them. Similar to addiction, codependents run in families, so it is important for both sides to understand the behaviors, be aware of them, and then break the cycle.
There is hope if you think that you are a codependent parent or have a codependent parent. It wasn’t until I was 30 years old that I even had an inkling of what codependency is/was. Like many others, I had heard the term before, I just thought it meant that you “depended on others” too much. Really not at all what it is, huh?
There is a way to break the cycle. There’s a way to heal from codependency and have health relationships with other adults. Some probably obvious, but still helpful, tips below:
- Recovery Program- For me, recovery would not have been possible without the immersion into a codependent recovery program. CoDa is probably the most well-known 12 step program, but I did one through my church for about 2.5 years and it was life changing helping me to understand what it was, my codependent traits and characteristics, etc. Al-Anon is also a phenomenal model for codependents, along with other Adult Parents of Addicts or similar groups.
- Therapy- I say this all the time, I wish therapy was free and mandatory as part of adulting. I have benefited so much from therapy over the years. I am working with two separate therapists now- one is a Christian counselor that I met through my church, and another is a Narcissistic Abuse Life Coach. Together, they both help me continue to navigate not just the daily parts of my codependency, but also understand the wounds from my early life and heal them so I can have healthier relationships as an adult and not continue making the same mistakes.
- Practice Self-Care- Learn to satisfy your needs in a healthy way. That doesn’t mean throwing back a bottle or two of wine when you’re feeling burned out or overwhelmed, it means practicing regular self care so that you can avoid the burnout in the first place.
- Practice and Encourage Positive Self Talk- Learn to look at yourself as a whole person who has needs and wants. Don’t be afraid to voice them. Get to know yourself, friends!
- Allow other people to solve their own problems and learn to solve your own- I’m not talking about not picking up the phone when it rings and listening to your kid talk about someone that broke their heart, I’m talking about being supportive and encouraging and loving while allowing them to solve their feelings or problems in age appropriate ways. That means you need to learn to do the same!
- Remember that your value is not measured by your success or what you offer to other people. Your worth comes from within.
I’d love to talk to you about my struggles with this, both as a child and a parent, or hear about yours. Codependency is a massively tricky subject, particularly when dealing with parents or children.
Let me share one final thought that I read online a number of months ago- probably while scrolling Instagram in the middle of the night. It went something like this:
YOUR CHILDREN DON’T BELONG TO YOU. YOU’RE ON BORROWED TIME. YOUR GOAL SHOULD BE TO BUILD BETTER HUMAN BEING, NOT A MINI VERSION OF YOU. YOUR DEFLATED HOPES AND DREAMS ARE NOT THEIRS. YOUR BULLSHIT IS NOT THEIRS. HELP THEM BECOME THE BEST THEM, NOT THE BEST YOU.
Look forward to hearing from you!