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10 Signs of Codependent Parent and How To Heal From Codependency

A codependent parent excessively focuses on their child’s well-being, often to save them from destructive behaviors like substance abuse, deriving a sense of purpose from this relationship. This pattern is akin to relationship addiction, where the parent becomes too dependent on their child to fulfill their emotional needs.

The differentiation between codependent and caring or narcissistic parenting lies in the focus and impact of the behavior. Codependent parents prioritize their children’s needs over their own to an unhealthy degree, unlike caring parents who maintain a balance. In contrast to narcissistic parents who are self-absorbed, codependent parents neglect their own needs in favor of their children’s.

Misconceptions about codependency often confuse it with manipulative behavior. Codependency involves internal qualities like low self-esteem and shame, while manipulative parenting involves external manipulations rather than internal feelings of inadequacy.

Codependency may stem from various causes, including the parenting style received in childhood, having parents with addictions or illnesses, dysfunctional family dynamics, or gender and birth order influences. Codependent parents may exhibit extreme control over their children, but they also sacrifice their own well-being due to their inability to set boundaries, being overly affected by their children’s problems, and deriving self-worth from the parent-child relationship. Codependency leads to a range of problems for both the parent and child, including emotional enmeshment, communication issues, and mental health challenges.

Healing from codependency involves understanding its nature, accepting the condition, establishing healthy boundaries, accepting one’s true self, focusing on nurturing other relationships, and seeking professional counseling. This process aims to rebuild a healthy parent-child dynamic where both parties can enjoy independence and emotional well-being.

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 term.​1​

Trying to reconcile multiple sources of information can be confusing.​2​

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.

A mother pointing aggressively at her daughter while shouting, displaying intense and confrontational communication.

What is a codependent parent?

A codependent parent is excessively preoccupied with the lives of their children, who tend, but not necessarily, to have destructive behaviors such as substance abuse. As a result, they derive a sense of purpose from the codependent parent-child relationship by controlling them to save them from these behaviors.​3,4​

Codependency describes a relationship pattern in which the codependent person meets another person’s needs in a dysfunctional way.

It is akin to relationship addiction.​5​

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 caring for their children and forget to care for 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 problem.​6​

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 occasionally.

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 relationships​7​.

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 happiness. Parents like these are obsessed with their children’s needs. Instead of tending to their own feelings, they take on their children’s emotions.​8​

Narcissistic parents, on the other hand, are self-absorbed. They value their feelings above all else. They lack empathy and disregard the feelings of others.​9​

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 self.​10​

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 one’s future relationships.

In adults, their codependency issue has been linked to the types of parenting, including parental control, coercion, lack of communication, lack of role clarity, low expression of emotions, and non-nurturance.​11​

Sick or addicted parents

A high level of codependency seems to be associated strongly with having an alcoholic father or mother, a mentally ill parent, or a physically ill parent.​8​

Intergenerational transmission

Researchers generally agree that it may stem from dysfunctional family habits passed down from one generation to the next.​12​

Those who have codependent mothers are more likely to be codependent adults.

Codependent patterns are learned behavior based on observation of interactions in the family.​13​

Dysfunctional family

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 problems.​2​

Conflicts between parents that cause feelings of self-blame and threat in childhood are also related to developing this trait.​8​

Grown children from these families may have developed “learned helplessness” in childhood, leading them to become preoccupied with their 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 roles.​14​

Birth order

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 over 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 stress.​15​

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 support.​16​

How to heal codependents

A codependent relationship is not healthy for parents or children.

Here are some steps that can stop codependent behavior and start the healing process.

Understand the differences between codependency, manipulation, narcissism, and overcontrolling.

Many non-academic sources on the internet mix up these terms. Identifying which one you are dealing with is important 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 difficult. But this is important in rebuilding a healthy parent-child relationship.​17​

Accept your role

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 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

To recover from codependence, you must become an emotionally independent individual.

Accept your true self. You have your 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. Having the correct information deciphered by an experienced mental health professional can significantly help this journey.


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    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:10.1080/019261899262104
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    Asher R, Brissett D. Codependency: A View from Women Married to Alcoholics. International Journal of the Addictions. Published online January 1988:331-350. doi:10.3109/10826088809039202
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    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:10.1080/01926189308251005
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    Carson AT, Baker RC. Psychological Correlates of Codependency in Women. International Journal of the Addictions. Published online January 1994:395-407. doi:10.3109/10826089409047388
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    Irwin H. Codependence, narcissism, and childhood trauma. J Clin Psychol. 1995;51(5):658-665. doi:


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *