Dealing With Codependent Parents: How To Help Them And How To Heal
By: Hailey Neu
Updated July 14, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC
When we think of codependency in relationships, we often associate the term with an abusive romantic relationship. In reality, one of the most common forms of codependency is in the form of codependent parents. Often unknowingly, the son or daughter in the situation can enable the unhealthy behavior of their parent. This can take an enormous toll on the child and can cause lasting negative effects. To help the parent, both parties need to understand what codependency is and how to heal from it.
What Is Codependency?
We often hear about codependency in the context of addiction. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines codependency as "a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (such as an addiction to alcohol or heroin)." While associating codependency with addiction is still common, we understand today that substance abuse is not always a factor in codependent people. Today, doctors and psychologists have a better understanding of codependency and know people can become addicted to a person.
Codependency is sometimes referred to as a "relationship addiction" because someone can become so dependent on another person to the point of addiction. This addiction can even take form in a parent-child relationship. A parent can become emotionally and mentally reliant on their child when dealing with a stressful situation. A codependent parent will rely on their child for their source of happiness, mental stability, and self-esteem. When the parent loses a sense of control, they can lash out at their children, and can sometimes have severe breakdowns. The child being depended on can experience a severe emotional toll as the codependent parent's happiness is in their hands.
The Effects Of Codependency
Relationships with codependent people can often be emotionally abusive and destructive. When a child has codependent parents, they can experience a lasting negative impact on their mental health, emotional intelligence, and future relationships. Unfortunately, studies or statistics about children who suffer after growing up with a codependent parent are lacking. However, experts do know the issue is becoming more and more prevalent each year.
Parents and guardians play a big role in helping a child develop emotionally and mentally. When a child has codependent parents, this shapes their future values and behavior. Children pick up on their parents' behaviors and mimic them. Codependency can be one of the many behaviors learned from a parent. Similar to other forms of addiction, codependency can involve family members, so it is important to be careful when raising a child who has the chance of developing it.
A study by the University College London shows that children with less controlling, but more loving parents were more likely to be happier and more satisfied in their adult years. We know that a person struggling with codependency feels as if they need to have control over their child or else they experience anxiety or worry. Parents will exert some level of control over their child, but codependent parents will take control of a whole different level. When a parent places extreme psychological control over a child, studies suggest this can decrease life satisfaction and hurt the mental wellbeing of a child. This is why it is so important to treat codependency issues once they are diagnosed.
Signs Of A Codependent Parent
Just like with any other addiction, codependency looks different for everyone. It is important to refrain from self-diagnosing and seek a diagnosis from a licensed counselor or a psychologist. Below are some of the signs that there is codependency in a parent-child relationship.
- Unhealthy psychological control through guilt tripping or emotional abuse
- Mood swings or anger issues if there is ever a lack of control
- Overly emotional behavior during an argument
- Difficulty having conversations without getting angry or enraged
- Tends to have a victim mentality even if they were the wrong one
- Making threats to convince the other to do what they want
- Confusing pity with sympathy
- Being passive aggressive when they do not get things their way
- Using silent treatment in a bid to gain control and compliance
There could be many other ways codependency manifests itself in relationships. The only way to know if someone has codependency issues is to get diagnosed by a licensed professional.
Can A Parent-Child Relationship Go Back To Normal After Codependency?
With the right boundaries and care, a parent-child relationship can be healthy again after codependency. Normally, the corrective behavior has to begin with the parent, especially if the child is at a young age. There are some steps that have been identified by professionals for getting on the road to a healthy parent-child relationship.
Steps To Heal A Relationship
Relationships that have suffered from a form of addiction need to be treated with loving care. When trying to stop the negativity that codependency brings, it is important to be careful, respectful, and sensitive at all times. It may be difficult, but closely following these steps can potentially fix a damaged relationship.
- Seek the help of a professional who is experienced with codependency or addiction. Counseling sessions with a licensed therapist will likely lead to better results.
- Have open communication while staying calm and respectful to one another. Often, codependent parents struggle with lashing out or expressing anger towards their children when they share their feelings. This is a cycle that must break to achieve normalcy again.
Confused About Dealing With Codependent Parents (And How To Heal)?
Give the child more freedom and control over themselves. In some situations, years will go by with the child feeling as if they have no control over their decisions. As mentioned above, a child must have a sense of independence for them to have a greater chance of feeling satisfied with their life in the future.
Set boundaries with each other. Setting boundaries, expectations, and rules are a big part of having a healthy parent-child relationship. With codependent parents, it is very likely that boundaries have never been set. It is best to set boundaries, so there are clear rules in the relationship moving forward.
Be forgiving when boundaries are crossed, and when rules are broken. Recovering from codependent parent-child relationship is a long journey for both parties, and it will be tough. Forgiveness should be freely given when one party is genuinely sorry for their behavior. The child should remember their parent is dealing with a diagnosed condition that causes their behavior. It should be noted that codependent parents can use manipulation to control, and purposefully crossing boundaries is not okay.
How To Heal After Growing Up With Codependent Parents
Growing up with codependent parents is undeniably hard. The negative and controlling behavior is shown to have a lasting impact on the child who is dependent on them. Once the child reaches adulthood, it can be challenging to have healthy friendships and romantic relationships. They can also exert the learned behavior in their future family as well. But healing is possible for both children and adults who have dealt with a codependent parent.
To avoid suffering from codependency in the future, doctors recommend people in this situation seek help from a licensed counselor. This can help break the generational effect codependency has. If the "child" is now an adult, they should consider going to relationship counseling with their partner. We learn how to treat others from our parents, and growing up with codependent parents is not an ideal environment to learn in. Even if the child is not in a relationship or their romantic relationship is healthy, counseling can equip people with healthy relationship skills they had not learned before.
No Longer Enabling
In an ideal world, the relationship will be fixed and can be healthy again. This would be great and would help to diminish the harmful effects of codependency. In reality, this does not always happen. Just like with other forms of addiction, the person struggling may not desire to recover or make little progress. In this case, it is the child's job to stop enabling the behavior.
No longer enabling the harmful behavior can be different for each relationship. One of the easiest ways is to repeatedly say, "You are breaking my boundaries, and I will not be controlled." This takes the parent out of their position of power and can help them realize what they are doing. Often, the enabler feels in control if they can spark emotions in their child. Trying to not react to the parent's hurtful actions and words is also a great step to no longer enable.
The hardest thing to do for the child is to detach from their parent. When the child feels their mental health is at stake because of the emotional and verbal abuse from their parent, they can decide to detach themselves. Codependency is a form of addiction, and in some severe cases, a child's presence can enable the person suffering. The child must realize that they are not responsible for their parent's happiness or actions. If the child's mental health is suffering from being depended on, it is okay for them to take a break. They must do this with kindness and love, make sure their parent is getting help from a therapist, and continue to be supportive of them.
Dealing With Codependent Parents
Getting a codependent parent help is a selfless and courageous step for any child to make, no matter what age they are. Being depended on for someone else's happiness is too much responsibility that no person could be prepared for. The best way to help is to get the codependent parent the help they need by a licensed therapist so they can stop their behavior. It is also highly recommended the child in the situation seeks counseling to help them feel confident in having healthy relationships in the future.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is a codependent parent?
A codependent parent can be described as someone who shares an obsessive and irrational attachment to their child. In a codependent parent-child relationship, the codependent parent tends to be needy and exploitative towards their adult child or adult children, and would always seek to control every aspect of their child's life at all times. A codependent parent-child relationship may not necessarily be physically abusive or violent, but it is often mentally and emotionally exhausting.
A codependent parent believes their actions are in the best interest of their child, even when these actions may have a detrimental effect on the well-being of their child. A codependent parent as a hard time understanding that their adult children may not always need them, and has no problem guilt tripping their child or being passive aggressive to have their way. Guilt tripping is a manipulative tactic common with codependent parents, and it used to maintain the power dynamics of the relationship.
What causes a codependent parent?
A number of factors contributes to this type of behavior. A codependent parent-child relationship may involve a parent with a history of alcohol or drug addiction, which allows them to prioritize their own needs over their adult child. A codependent parent could also have experienced a traumatic childhood where they were made to compromise their own interests to please their narcissistic parents.
In the event of the loss of a partner, the surviving parent could also form a codependent relationship with their child as a way to deal with their grief and anxiety issues. The codependent parent may also give the child guilt trips that will make the child think they are a burden to the parent, which could lead to feelings of depression and low self-esteem.
Parents dealing with health challenges may also choose to maintain a codependent relationship with their adult child or adult children, especially if their family members and friends have alienated them. A codependent parent may also experience mood swings in response to their child's actions.
Do I have a codependent parent?
If your parent constantly guilt trips you or makes passive aggressive comments in a bid to coerce you into doing something you don't want to, then this may be indicative of a codependent relationship. A codependent parent may also prevent their child from having a best friend, with the intention of becoming their child's only best friend. If your parent consistently makes you feel guilty for wanting to spend time with your friends, then you may need to consider their motive.
A codependent parent would often experience mood swings during an argument and projects a feeling of extreme dependency that makes them seem vulnerable and helpless without their adult child or adult children even when this is not the case. When a codependent parent realizes that guilt-tripping their adult child into doing something no longer works, they may threaten to harm themselves.
If you have ever been forced at a young age to make a decision due to pressure from your parent, maybe when they made you drop out of high school because they didn't want you to be away from them, or when they sabotaged your relationship with other family members because they claim to be afraid of losing you, these are some of the attributes of a narcissistic parent and may be considered as warning signs of codependent behavior.
What are the signs of a codependent person?
A codependent person has a victim mentality, which makes them feel entitled to the attention and compliance of others. This often manifests through guilt-tripping behavior and insincere mood swings that may involve the use of passive aggressive behavior. Rather than having an honest conversation to resolve conflict, a codependent person may choose to employ manipulative tactics like the silent treatment as a way of guilt tripping their adult children to feel sympathetic towards them.
A codependent person never takes responsibility for their actions, and believes they are always right regardless of the situation. In some instances, the passive person in a codependent relationship may leave choices like which high school to attend or if they should take up a part-time job for the dominant person to decide on their behalf.
A codependent person may suffer from a mental disorder like borderline personality disorder and dependency personality disorder, but not all codependent persons exhibit symptoms of these orders. However, if the codependent person is struggling with an addiction problem, it is important that they seek help.
What does a codependent parent look like?
A codependent parent may often describe themselves as their child's best friend, especially when they don't allow their child to have any other friends. A codependent parent will resort to using manipulative behavior like the silent treatment to ensure that child feels guilty enough to submit to their will.
For example, a codependent father may accuse his daughter of not visiting him, just to get her to promise she would visit more often. Once he has gained her promise, he may tell her not to bother because he doesn't want her to think he's guilt tripping her, which would make the daughter reassure him that her decision is based on her belief that it is the right thing to do.
What is the root of codependency?
In a codependent parent-child relationship, a narcissistic parent prioritizes their own needs ahead of their child. Codependency may also involve the relationship between an adult child and other family members, as well as a romantic relationship between two people. Children who grow up in dysfunctional families with narcissistic parents may also end up being codependent parents themselves.
Codependency may also be as a result of mental disorders like dependency personality disorder and borderline personality disorder, as well as other personality disorders that may have a negative effect on a parent's relationship with their child.
What does a codependent relationship look like?
A codependent relationship generally involves an individual who expects unconditional love and devotion from their romantic partner, child, or family members. Codependent relationships depend on a cycle of neediness, with one person needing the other, and the other person wanting to be needed. This type of relationship is considered unhealthy because it is a form of addiction.
In a codependent-parent child relationship, the parent may make their adult child feel guilty for not prioritizing the parent's needs, while the adult child may also feel guilty for not fulfilling the need of their narcissistic parent. A codependent parent-child relationship is one where the child bears the burden of responsibility and feels obligated to please their narcissistic parents.
What is a toxic mother son relationship?
Toxic parents often have no regard for the feelings and wellbeing of their children, which allows for abusive behavior. Toxic parents would usually use guilt tripping measures to adult children, but would never feel guilty for taking advantage of their adult children.
For example, in the situation that the child's father is absent, a toxic mother would give a son guilt trips to make the child feel at fault that she went through the pain of raising him as a single parent. This creates a situation where the child feels indebted to the mother, spends considerable time being alone with her, and tries always to please his mother regardless of her demands.
Toxic mothers are often narcissistic parents, and may even alienate every other woman in their child's life they regard as a threat to their relationship with their son. To from their son's romantic partner, they could give him guilt trips by claiming he no longer loves or cares about them.
Is codependency a personality disorder?
Initially, codependency was used to describe someone who lives or is in a relationship with an addicted person. But over the years, codependency has taken on a broader meaning, with some experts suggesting it should be regarded as a personality disorder. However, while codependency overlaps with mental health issues like dependent personality disorder (DPD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and histrionic personality disorder (HPD), it is not generally agreed to be a personality disorder on its own.