| What is a codependent parent | Codependent parent vs caring parent | Codependent parent vs narcissistic parent | Codependent parent vs manipulative parent | Causes | Signs | Problems | How to heal |
Originally used in addiction recovery treatment plans since the 1940s, the term codependency has gained popularity in self-help groups and pop psychology literature.
However, it is one of the most poorly defined terms in psychology. Everyone seems to use it differently. A 1990s professional literature review identified 23 different descriptions of this term1. Trying to reconcile multiple sources of information can be confusing2.
To avoid confusion, we use a definition supported by widely recognized peer-reviewed research, though we don’t claim to have the only correct definition.
What is a codependent parent
Codependency describes a relationship pattern in which the codependent person meets another person’s needs in a dysfunctional way. It is akin to relationship addiction3. A codependent parent is excessively preoccupied with the lives of their children4 who tend to, but not necessarily, have destructive behaviors such as substance abuse. As a result, they derive a sense of purpose from the codependent parent-child relationship5 by controlling them in order to “save” them from these behaviors6.
Codependency is viewed as a relationship disorder in which the person is addicted to an unhealthy relationship.
Codependent parents have an extreme focus outside of themselves. They provide extreme caretaking to their children. They are often busy taking care of their children and forget to take care of themselves. They tend to lack expression of feelings.
The problem arises when parents become too dependent on their children to fulfill their emotional needs. However, they tend to deny there is a problem7.
Codependent parent vs caring parent
It is fair to expect parents to be interested in their children’s lives and maybe even a little nosy about them from time to time.
But there is a difference between codependent parenting and nurturing parenting.
The former is a normal healthy caregiving role; the latter is a pathological extreme focus on relationships4.
Codependent parent vs narcissistic parent
There is almost no overlap between codependence and narcissism in terms of their characteristics.
Codependents feel responsible for others’ feelings and happiness8. Parents like these are obsessed with their children’s needs. Instead of tending to their own feelings, they take on the emotions of their children.
Narcissistic parents, on the other hand, are self-absorbed. They value their own feelings above all else. They lack empathy and disregard the feelings of others9.
When it comes to one’s feelings, narcissism is almost the exact opposite of codependence.
Codependent parent vs manipulative parent
The most common misconception about codependent parents is that they like to play the victim.
Codependent people internalize shame and develop a “false self”. They are prone to shame and have low self-esteem. They feel inadequate about their true self10.
In other words, these are internal qualities, not external manipulations.
Playing the victim, showing passive-aggressive behavior to induce guilt trips, or using emotional abuse indicates a manipulative, narcissistic, controlling, or helicopter parent rather than a codependent one.
What causes codependency in parents
Originally used to describe people with addictive parents, codependency has now been observed in those whose parents do not have addictions.
Various causes have been identified in different studies due to the various definitions of the term.
Listed below are some of the more well-known associations found by researchers. Combinations or interactions of these factors may lead to codependency.
Parenting style in childhood
The parenting style one receives in childhood can affect their future relationships.
In adults, their codependency issue has been linked to various parenting styles, including parental control, coercion, lack of communication, lack of role clarity, low expression of emotions, and non-nurturance11.
Sick or addicted parents
A high level of codependency seems to be associated strongly with having an alcoholic father or mother, mentally ill parent, or physically ill parent8.
Researchers generally agree that it may stem from a pattern of dysfunctional family habits passed down from one generation to the next12.
Those who have codependent mothers are more likely to be codependent adults. Codependent patterns are learned behavior based on observation of interactions in the family13.
Adults with codependency are more likely to have grown up in dysfunctional families.
They may have experienced abuse of some form in their childhood.
Some dysfunctional families have oppressive rules that prevent the open expression of feelings or discussion of personal problems2.
Conflicts between parents that cause feelings of self-blame and threat in childhood are also found to be related to developing this trait8.
It is possible that grown children from these families may have developed “learned helplessness” in childhood, leading them to become preoccupied with their own children’s lives when they become adults.
Irrespective of the cause, adult females seem to be more likely to develop codependency than men due to their being more stereotypically engaged in caretaking roles14.
The eldest child in the family is also more likely to face this issue since they are seen as the “responsible one” who can provide stability, structure, and care for siblings. This child gains self-worth by organizing others in the family.
Signs of a codependent parent
Here are some of the common signs of codependency in parents.
- Have an extreme focus and excess control on their children
- Sacrifice their romantic relationship or own well-being to attend to their children
- Cannot set boundaries and become tied up in their children’s lives
- Any problematic situation for their children can highly affect them
- Believe that relationships with their children determine their self-worth
- Intensely influenced by their children’s emotions but disconnected from her own
- Low self-esteem
- Derive self-worth from caring for their children
- Denial of problems
- Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
Problems with codependency
In a codependent relationship, parents and children are emotionally stuck together. They do not have a clear sense of self as individuals. They operate on a reactive basis and are more likely to demonstrate emotional behavior in the face of stress15.
Codependents also have a range of problems including compulsive behaviors, communication problems, and difficulties with intimacy.
They may also develop personality disorders resulting in dysfunctional patterns of living. They also tend to have a low level of social support16.
How to heal codependents
A codependent relationship is not healthy for parents or children. Here are some of the steps that can stop codependent behavior and start the healing process.
Understand the differences between codependency, manipulation, narcissism, and overcontrolling.
There are many non-academic sources on the internet that mix up these terms.
It is important to identify which one you are dealing with in order to determine the best treatment. Applying the wrong type of self-help can create confusion and counterproductive results.
Accept the condition
Once the issue is identified, acceptance is critical in healing.
Most codependents deny outright that they have a problem, so seeking treatment can be difficult17. But this is an important step in rebuilding a healthy parent-child relationship.
Accept your role
In order to accept your role, you must know where your responsibility ends. Replace the blurred boundaries with clear ones. Rather than taking on responsibility that is not yours, make your adult child responsible for their own.
Having healthy boundaries also means that you must give up direct control of your children and have them learn to manage their own lives.
This is best for you and your kids in the long run.
Accept your true self
In order to recover from codependence, you must become an emotionally independent individual.
Accept your true self. You have your own feelings and desires that are distinct from those of your children. You have the right to feel well and to be healthy on your own.
Self-care is essential to taking care of yourself.
Attend other relationships
It is time to switch focus to nurturing healthy relationships with your spouse or close friends. Create a strong social network to support your emotional well-being.
How to get help
Lastly, seek counseling from a licensed therapist or family therapist if such services are available. There are a lot of self-help resources out there, but you may also find some misinformation as well. Having the correct information deciphered by an experienced mental health professional can be a great help in this journey.
- 1.Irvine LJ. Codependency and Recovery: Gender, Self, and Emotions in Popular Self-Help. Symbolic Interaction. Published online May 1995:145-163. doi:10.1525/si.19184.108.40.206
- 2.Morgan J. What is codependency? J Clin Psychol. 1991;47(5):720-729. doi:3.O’Brien P, Gaborit M. Codependency: a disorder separate from chemical dependency. J Clin Psychol. 1992;48(1):129-136. doi:4.Lindley N, Giordano P, Hammer E. Codependency: predictors and psychometric issues. J Clin Psychol. 1999;55(1):59-64. doi:5.Fischer JL, Spann L. Measuring Codependency. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. Published online May 6, 1991:87-100. doi:10.1300/j020v08n01_066.Beattie M. Beyond Codependency: And Getting Better All the Time. Simon and Schuster; 2009.7.Nordgren J, Richert T, Svensson B, Johnson B. Say No and Close the Door? Codependency Troubles among Parents of Adult Children with Drug Problems in Sweden. Journal of Family Issues. Published online October 8, 2019:567-588. doi:10.1177/0192513×198792008.Knudson TM, Terrell HK. Codependency, Perceived Interparental Conflict, and Substance Abuse in the Family of Origin. The American Journal of Family Therapy. Published online May 2012:245-257. doi:10.1080/01926187.2011.6107259.Buss DM, Chiodo LM. Narcissistic Acts in Everyday Life. J Personality. Published online June 1991:179-215. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1991.tb00773.x10.Wells M, Glickauf-Hughes C, Jones R. Codependency: A grass roots construct’s relationship to shame-proneness, low self-esteem, and childhood parentification. The American Journal of Family Therapy. Published online January 1999:63-71. doi:10.1080/01926189926210411.Crothers M, Warren L. Parental antecedents of adult codependency. J Clin Psychol. 1996;52(2):231-239. doi:12.O’Gorman P. Codependency explored: A social movement in search of definition and treatment. Psych Quart. Published online 1993:199-212. doi:10.1007/bf0106587013.Fuller J, Warner R. Family stressors as predictors of codependency. Genet Soc Gen Psychol Monogr. 2000;126(1):5-22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1071389914.Asher R, Brissett D. Codependency: A View from Women Married to Alcoholics. International Journal of the Addictions. Published online January 1988:331-350. doi:10.3109/1082608880903920215.Prest LA, Protinsky H. Family systems theory: A unifying framework for codependence. The American Journal of Family Therapy. Published online December 1993:352-360. doi:10.1080/0192618930825100516.Carson AT, Baker RC. Psychological Correlates of Codependency in Women. International Journal of the Addictions. Published online January 1994:395-407. doi:10.3109/1082608940904738817.Irwin H. Codependence, narcissism, and childhood trauma. J Clin Psychol. 1995;51(5):658-665. doi:
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