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How Not to Be Codependent: A Guide for Parents With Adult Children

Codependent relationships are common. They exist in families all around the world, and they often pass through from generation to generation.

But when your child has a mental health condition, these dysfunctional family dynamics tend to make symptoms worse. Codependent relationships become the status quo, and the residual effects are often long-lasting.

In your desire to control or help the situation, you may actually be perpetuating more anxiety and creating a culture of low self-esteem for everyone in the family. You may act in codependent ways without realizing the full impact of your behavioral patterns.

Here's what parents need to know:

10 Signs You're in a Codependent Relationship With Your Adult Child

Codependency refers to attempting to control or change a person's unhealthy behavior. Family members often engage in codependent relationships when substance abuse or mental health concerns are prominent. The codependent behaviors represent a way to try to "fix" the issue.

Here are the main codependent tendencies parents often struggle with:

You Consistently Disregard Your Own Needs

If you're a codependent person, you may really feel like you don't have much of an identity. You might be that person who goes around saying that you're low-maintenance or don't have many needs.

And while it's true that all parents make sacrifices from time to time, codependency takes this sacrifice one step further. You basically dismiss your needs because you're so used to catering to others.

Parents in a codependent relationship often surrender their own personal relationships, activities, and hobbies for the sake of their child.

You Can't Say No

You know you shouldn't keep giving them money. And yet, you do. Every time. Because you don't want them to be homeless. Or you feel guilty that they aren't earning enough from their job. Or because you justify that it's your money, and you can do whatever you want with it.

Or, you know you shouldn't let them treat you disrespectfully. But you realize that they have a mental health issue and they don't quite realize how much their words impact you. So you keep allowing them to curse at you.

Saying no is hard. And if your child is used to you always saying yes, they may protest immensely when you do set a boundary.

You Lie For Your Child

Let's say a close friend knows about your child's heroin addiction. They know they attended treatment, and that you've all been going to family therapy. Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, your child relapsed- much to everyone's disappointment. You run into this friend at the grocery store. They ask how your child's doing.

You lie almost instinctively. You justify it by telling yourself that it isn't anyone else's business. But deep down, there's this guilt. You're tired of denying the truth.

Parents often lie for their children out of shame. Deep down, they feel embarrassed or responsible for what's happening. Sometimes, they lie out of fear. They don't want their child to get into trouble.

But denying the truth doesn't tackle the problem. It only makes the lies more insidious and the codependent relationship even more toxic.

You Complain Without Taking Any Action

Maybe you're entirely honest about your child's behavior and its impact on you. But all you do is talk about your stress. You haven't done anything to try to change the dynamic.

Here's the truth: If you're a codependent person, the only way to change your codependent habits is to change your codependent habits.

And while you might be hoping that your child takes an initiative to break the pattern, it's often easier when the parent takes the lead.

You Act Like Best Friends

It's perfectly reasonable to have a loving relationship with your child. But you shouldn't be best friends- they need you for more than an equal friendship can offer.

They need you to be a role model and mature source of support. They also need you to prioritize your own health.

You Make Most of Their Decisions

How often do you act on behalf of your child? Do you just take things over because you know you can do it faster, better, or with more accuracy?

You're not alone. Many codependent people act in controlling roles. It starts with being a primary caregiver where you literally must make all their decisions. But even as your child grows up, you can't reconcile your changing role identity.

Unfortunately, family members learn they can rely on you to do everything. As a result, your child may not feel much incentive to change their patterns! You continue feeling anxious about their well-being, and they continue letting you run their lives.

You Feel Responsible For Your Child's Emotions

One of the key signs of codependency is assuming that you are accountable for someone else's emotional state.

While it's true that certain actions may increase the likelihood of someone feeling a certain way, you can't control other people. And attempting to do so only reinforces unhealthy behavior and excessive reliance on one another.

You are Overly Rigid

Although many parents struggling with codependent behavior don't have enough boundaries, some people exist on the other end of the spectrum. They're much too harsh with their limits.

This is the case when you expect nothing less than perfection from your child. With that, there's no room for flexibility. Rigid boundaries don't take unique personalities and life changes into consideration. You only see things from one perspective, and that perspective feels like the only truth.

You Have Intense Anxiety

A codependent person often lives in the future. They're often rooted in the worst-case scenario, heightened and panicked about what dreadful thing will happen next.

This anxiety isn't totally unfounded. If you've been through difficult times with your child's mental health or addiction, your fears have a grain of truth to them.

But if your entire life centers around what your child is or isn't doing, you're only perpetuating more anxiety. And even if your child commits to changing unhealthy behavior, there may be a strong part of you that doubts their ability- causing you to continue feeling anxious.

You Won't Change Your Own Behavior or Seek Treatment Yourself

It's easy for family members to judge an addicted person for their drinking while downplaying their own relationship to alcohol.

Unfortunately, this blame game happens in many dysfunctional relationships. One person (often known as the 'identified patient') becomes the black sheep. They hold the pain for the entire system. Other family members are adamant that, if only they changed, everything would be better.

In reality, everything exists within homeostasis. Dysfunctional families act in certain roles that maintain a mutually satisfying relationship- even when things feel chaotic.

Change starts with you. And if you aren't entirely ready to make a change, that's okay. But don't put that expectation on your child, either.

How Do You Change Codependent Behavior Patterns?

If you recognize that you're in a codependent relationship, try not to berate yourself.

Codependency often comes from a profound place of love. It also comes from desperation. You want your child to thrive, and you may be willing to sacrifice a healthy relationship if it gives you a sense of control or relief.

That said, it is possible to overcome codependency, and doing so will be better for everyone in the family.

Practice Mindfulness

At some point, you will need to learn how to sit with your own emotions of fear, guilt, or anger. People engage in codependent behavior to try to avoid those feelings. They maintain relationships by trying to control the outcome.

But ask yourself this: has it worked? Or have your own feelings felt even stronger despite your efforts to prevent them?

Mindfulness can help you learn how to spend time with discomfort and ambiguity. You may not always like your child's decisions, but mindfulness can help you accept the situation better.

Get Your Own Therapy

Codependent behavior is often learned behavior, meaning you probably picked up some of these tactics in childhood yourself. Your own parents may have exhibited codependent behavior in your household growing up.

Therapy can help you address the origin of your codependent tendencies. This can lay the groundwork for creating healthy, future relationships while also improving your self-worth.

Participate in Family Therapy

Family therapy can help strengthen communication and improve boundaries in family dynamics. This therapy focuses on giving each family member a platform to express their needs and pain points.

Family therapy isn't about shifting blame or having only one person make a change. Instead, everyone becomes accountable for their actions.

If you and your partner continue having disagreements over your child, couples therapy may help. It's common for partners to lose themselves in the emotionally-destructive chaos of enabling behavior. Getting back on track may require some serious conversations with a trusted mental health professional.

Prioritize Other Relationships

Even though. it may seem difficult at first, you are a whole person, and it's important to focus on your own identity- regardless of what's happening with your child.

At first, it's normal to resist this suggestion. After all, you probably still have this exaggerated sense of responsibility for your child's well-being. But your child benefits from seeing you change unhealthy behavior.

Moreover, your self-esteem depends on you cultivating your personal needs. One of the clear signs of codependency is neglecting other relationships. Therefore, you can combat this by making more of an effort to connect with others.

Don't Rush to Give Ultimatums

Sometimes parents run in the opposite direction when they want to overcome codependency. Maybe you've let your child use drugs in your home for the past ten years. But now, in a valiant effort to change your patterns, you decide that, if your child doesn't get sober, you won't ever speak to them again.

Even if this feels like an appropriate option, it's probably unrealistic. All change takes time. Ultimatums can be effective, but only if you are 100% dedicated to following through with your stated consequences.

Instead, focus on strengthening boundaries. What, for example, will you do if your child uses drugs in the home? Maybe you will require that they seek treatment if they want to continue living there. Or maybe you will demand that they leave home and pay rent elsewhere.

Attend a Support Group

Groups like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or Codependents Anonymous provide peer support for people struggling with codependent behavior. In these groups, you will learn that you're not alone in your difficulties. You will also receive guidance on how you can best cope with your unique situation.

Let Your Child Know That You're Trying to Change Unhealthy Behavior

It's important for me to work on myself right now.

I'm taking time to strengthen other relationships with other family members.

I will continue reassessing our relationship.

In other words, label the changes you're making. Your child may protest (no matter their age), but it can still be helpful to outline this new movement in your relationship.

Cultivate Healthier Relationships

Codependency often transcends beyond parent-child dynamics. Some experts even cite codependency as a key symptom of relationship addiction, with the overarching notion that people can become addicted to rescuing or trying to fix other people.

In your own emotional work, it may be helpful to evaluate where other codependent behaviors exist. Have they been present in your romantic relationships? What about with friends or coworkers? Do you identify with any traits of dependent personality disorder? Have you had patterns of abusive relationships with other family members?

Practice Self-Care More Often

You know that self-care is important, but what is its context for someone with a more codependent personality?

First, a codependent relationship becomes emotionally exhaustive. You probably spend excess time, money, and resources on your child, and this causes you to neglect yourself.

But even if your child improves? What if they show significant progress in treating their emotional and behavioral condition? If you don't have a relationship with yourself, you may still find yourself obsessing over your child. You may unknowingly sabotage their efforts because you're so used to them 'messing up.'

Self-care is also important for modeling. If you want to change an unhealthy relationship, the first work starts inward. That means paying attention to your needs and treating yourself with love and kindness. The higher your self-worth, the less tolerance you will have for a codependent relationship.

Accept That Your Child Is Different From You

You know this, but do you really know this?

Or does your life feel like one battle where you're just trying to get your child to conform to what feels important to you?

Yes, your child may engage in dangerous or concerning behavior. And yes, their mental health or substance issues may frighten your immensely. But codependent individuals often struggle with accepting that people act and think differently from them.

Talk About What You're Doing With Other Family Members

Just like you should talk about your desire to change with your child, it can also be helpful to discuss these new limits with other family members. Ideally, you want everyone on the same page


You Always Give Unsolicited Advice

Maybe you think you're being helpful by telling your child what to do. You don't want them to make the same mistakes you once did.

But tirelessly giving advice rarely works. First, the child often rejects it. Even if it's sound and logical, the more you say it, the more frustrated they will be hearing it. But more than that, it isn't necessarily your job to guide how your child lives. At some point, overcoming codependency requires them to experiment and explore what works best for them.

How We Help Parents Implement Healthy Boundaries

Enabling behaviors are often insidious, and they can be hard to change. Codependent relationships do have some functional purpose- you get to feel a sense of control, which can provide some temporary relief.

That said, codependent traits often stunt emotional development, and they can be a terrible breeding ground for resentment. Romantic partners, parents, and other family members often feel frustrated by their immense efforts.

At Resurface Group, we support people in their journeys to overcome codependency. We know that change is hard, but we believe it's always worth the effort.

Contact us today to learn more!

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