Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Codependency in Children

Would you know how to spot codependency in children?

Codependency is the desire to control people, including significant others, colleagues, and even children. It can have detrimental effects on healthy child development. As we are seeing an emergence of codependent parenting, I was recently asked to do an interview on the issue for a national website. I have shared that interview below to help broaden the understanding of codependency and its long-term effects.

What is codependency?

Codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed from one generation to another. It is also known as "relationship addiction" because it is an emotional and behavioral state that affects a person’s ability to sustain a healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling relationship. Codependent relationships are often emotionally destructive and abusive.

Is codependency among children more prevalent now? Why?

While statistics on codependency in children are lacking, experts agree that it is becoming an increasingly more prevalent problem. Historically, there was an expectation that children become more autonomous at a much younger age.

Plus, many children suffer from anxiety disorders, which are related to both codependency and anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health disorder facing youth today as they affect approximately 13% of children. Codependency may contribute to separation anxiety and social anxiety.

In the past, codependency was associated with people who enabled alcohol abusers and drug addicts. Now, the term has taken on broader use and is associated with emotional dependency because parents play such an important role in shaping the identity of their children; it is not uncommon to see this issue at a young age. Codependency as an adult may very well in fact have its origins in childhood.

Children develop their sense of identity, identify their values, and learn how to communicate and express their needs and feelings based on parental interaction. Parents play a large role in shaping who and what their child becomes in life. It's easy to become so busy with everyday routines that true family time falls to the side.

Children need a lot of time and devotion. They need parental guidance to help them develop into strong and secure individuals. Therefore, it is essential that parents spend good quality time encouraging their child to explore life, to believe in who he/she is, and most important, to feel loved, accepted, and secure. Often codependent children lack a positive parent-child relationship. They lack confidence to succeed and many don't feel accepted. In order to counteract codependency, it's important to know the common warning signs of a codependent child:

  • low self-esteem
  • the need to be in control
  • an excessive need to please others
  • anxiety and stress
  • extreme worry
  • not feeling "good enough"
  • non-assertive communication
  • blaming self for others' problems
  • a lack of trust
  • a fear of being alone
  • intimacy problems
  • difficulty making decisions
  • chronic anger

Sadly, codependency is often a learned behavior that carries forward into adulthood. In adulthood, codependency can mask itself through anxiety, stress, and depression. It can even wreak havoc on relationships. Codependency can become a vicious cycle continuing from one generation to another. Fortunately, with the right tools, the cycle can be broken and the healing process can begin.

Are there common themes that foster codependency?

General rules within families that may cause codependency may include:

  • Don't talk about your problems or how you feel.
  • Feelings should not be expressed.
  • Be strong and "suck up" your problems.
  • Work hard, be good, seek perfection.
  • Strive to meet unrealistic expectations.
  • Do as I say not as I do.

Many families may have one or more of these unspoken rules or expectations, but these rules tend to lead to low self-esteem, poor coping skills, poor problem-solving skills, and unhealthy relationships.

What do you recommend parents do to prevent codependency among children?

The following tips can help prevent codependency and create a positive parent-child relationship:

  1. Establish a trusting relationship.
  2. Maintain healthy boundaries.
  3. Set reasonable rules.
  4. Set realistic expectations.
  5. Encourage your child to openly express his/her thoughts and feelings.
  6. Provide a nurturing and supportive environment.
  7. Allow your child to explore and be independent.
  8. Encourage problem solving. Don't rush to fix everything; rather, guide and encourage your child to find the solution.
  9. Provide positive feedback and give lots of compliments.
  10. Build self-esteem by encouraging your child to try new things, and to persevere with difficult tasks. Believe in your child's ability to achieve.
  11. Most important, build them up with words; don't tear them down.

A primary goal of parenting is to provide an environment for children to grow to be happy and independent adults. Codependent children will struggle to achieve that goal.

Treatment of codependency includes education and individual and group therapy. Parents of codependent children must learn to challenge distortions and unrealistic expectations and identify self-defeating behavior patterns.

If you need help breaking the cycle of codependency, contact your child's pediatrician or speak with a counselor. Sometimes breaking old habits is hard, but there are professionals out there who can help.

More from Raychelle Cassada Lohmann Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Raychelle Cassada Lohmann Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today