A reader recently asked me what she could do to prevent codependence in her grandchild. Apparently, alcoholism runs in the family along with codependence. I’m not surprised; the enabling apple doesn’t fall far from the enabling tree. Codependence and dysfunctional helping and giving are often family traditions. Bowen’s family systems theory is just one of many theories suggesting that our problems are often generations deep and that we inherit problems from our parents.
One way that dysfunctional helping and giving are probably “inherited” is through observational learning (though our genetic inheritance may also influence personality traits, like empathy, associated with dysfunctional helping and giving). The basic idea is that people often learn how to act by observing the behavior of another (a “model”) rather than through direct experience. Indeed, quite a bit of research finds that parents’ helping behavior, and what they say about helping, influences the helping of their children, even when those children become adults. Although what models do might be a bit more important than what they say about helping, apparently both are important.
In short, growing up watching important adults over-help, rescue, and enable, makes us more prone to it ourselves, especially if we identify with those adults and hear them exalted by others as saintly for all they put up with. These behavioral scripts are usually learned unconsciously when we are too young to understand or have access to their negative consequences. Instead, we just learn that in this situation this is what people do. Dysfunctional helping becomes familiar and routine, despite its hazards. Because these patterns often repeat without awareness, family therapy is sometimes necessary for identifying and breaking them.
This means that one of the most important things we can do is clean up our own codependent act for the sake of our (grand) children, making sure that our youngsters don’t grow up watching us provide “helpful” accommodations that make it easier for others to maintain addictions, be irresponsible, underperforming, or unhealthy, etc. You don’t want to model that “good” and responsible people sacrifice themselves to care for under-functioning others whose need for help is manufactured by their own poor choices. You need to show them and tell them that loving someone and being a good person doesn’t mean accepting imbalanced relationships and allowing others to take advantage of you. You have to teach them, verbally and through example, that once it’s obvious our help and giving has fostered dependence, irresponsibility, incompetence, harmed our relationships, or led us to feel disrespected or taken advantage of, we should call the deal off and save our resources, nurturing, and support for people that will use our assistance to move forward with their lives.
Codependence involves relationship patterns characterized by imbalanced giving and receiving where relationship intimacy and closeness are built on one’s person’s ongoing crisis and the other’s rescuing and enabling. We have to make sure this isn’t the model we provide to our youngsters with our own relationships. Instead, we have to show (and tell) them that satisfying intimate relationships are equitable over time and that mutual caring and giving builds healthy intimacy.
People prone to codependent relationships are often very empathic so it makes sense that you might teach your (grand) child to manage their empathy so it doesn’t set them up for trouble. Teach them verbally and through example to step back and think it through before impulsively helping or giving. It can be hard to watch someone suffer the consequences of their irresponsible actions but to assume those for them (for example, by bailing them out or covering for them) is to interfere with their learning of important life lessons.
People prone to codependent relationships usually have low self-esteem. Sometimes they doubt that people will want to be in a relationship with them unless they give more than they receive. People with low self-esteem are also more easily manipulated into enabling “takers” and people in the throes of addiction. Sometimes people with low self-esteem boost their self-esteem by helping low-functioning others who, by comparison, make them feel capable and competent. If you can, redirect their helpful tendencies to animals, people, and causes that will truly benefit from their help. This is a more stable and satisfying source of self-esteem, and a less troublesome helping path.
Low self-esteem usually results from parental absence, indifference, or neglect, which suggests to a child they are fundamentally not of value. In families with long-standing codependence patterns, a parents’ codependent relationship with another child or adult can also lead a child to feel unloved and unlovable, setting them up for future codependence, or for their own poor functioning (since that appears to be the route to receiving love and care). Promote a healthy self-esteem in your youngsters by telling them they are loved, by prioritizing your relationships with them, paying them attention, supporting their interests, and providing consistent and loving attention to their needs. Show them you care about them and their future by using positive disciplinary methods rather than shame-based methods that make them feel like they are bad people when they mess up (being too permissive is almost as bad since it can send a message that you don’t care enough to bother or think they’re hopeless).
You and your loved ones may need to seek professional help. Breaking family codependence patterns sometimes requires family and individual therapy to address the self-esteem and attachment issues that make codependence more likely to occur.
Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 52, pages 1-26.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Burn, S.M. (in progress). Beyond Declarations of Codependence: The Psychology of Dysfunctional Helping and Giving.
Rushton, P.J. (1982) Social Learning Theory and the Development of Prosocial Behavior Academic Press.