Co-dependent relationships are dysfunctional relationships where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility or under-achievement. Among the core characteristics of co-dependency, the most common theme is an extreme reliance on other people for approval.
Co-dependency causes so much unhappiness. Research shows that co-dependency is learned in families and is passed from one generation to the next. It prevents the development of healthy, independently functioning individuals. When parents are co-dependent, this behaviour gets passed on to their children, unless they consciously make an effort to respond to their children in healthy ways. But since co-dependency is learned, it can be prevented and unlearned.
The problem is, like addiction, co-dependency is characterised by denial. This means you may not even be aware that you’re co-dependent and are unwittingly teaching it to your children. The most preventative steps you can take are to improve your self-esteem and communication. Some of the main symptoms of co-dependency are:
- Being overly focussed on someone or something
- Low self-esteem
- Non-assertive communication
- Denying or devaluing your needs, feelings and wants
- Poor boundaries
- A need for control
Children learn who they are and how to identify, value, and communicate needs and feelings through interactions with their parents. Thus, how you communicate with your children is critical to the formation of their identity and to a large extent determines how secure their sense of self and self-esteem are. As parents, here are seven key things you can do to ensure your children grow into independent adults:
1. Allow freedom of information
One of the main characteristics of healthy families and organisations, even countries, is freedom to express thoughts and observations. Keeping secrets and creating ‘no-talk’ rules are common in dysfunctional families. For instance, children are told not to mention of grandma’s limp or daddy’s drinking. This teaches children to be fearful and to doubt their perceptions and themselves. Children are naturally inquisitive about everything. This is healthy and should be encouraged, not squelched.
2. Show your children respect
Showing respect means that you listen and take them seriously, which communicates that who they are and what they think and feel have worth. You don’t have to agree with what they say, but listening to them shows that you respect them and this in turn teaches them self-respect. Speak to your children with courtesy. Avoid criticism, which is destructive to self-esteem. Instead, praise the behaviour you desire. You can set limits and explain negative consequences of behaviour you dislike without name-calling or criticising, such as, “It makes me and others angry when you tie up the bathroom for half an hour because we’re all kept waiting,” instead of, “You’re selfish and inconsiderate to hog the bathroom.” When you treat your child with respect, they will treat others with respect and expect the same in future relationships.
3. Accept your children’s feelings
Many clients tell me that they weren’t allowed to express anger, complain, feel sad, or even get excited. They learned to repress their feelings. This becomes problematic in their adult relationships and can lead to depression. Parents, often with good intentions, say, “Don’t feel sad, [or jealous, etc.]” or “Don’t raise your voice.” Allowing children to express their feelings provides a healthy outlet. Feelings needn’t be rational, nor do you have to “fix” them. Instead, comfort your children and let them know you love them, rather than try to talk them out of how they feel. However, expressing feelings doesn’t mean that they should be free to act on them. For instance, Tommy can be angry at his sister, but it’s not okay to hit her.
4. Respect your children’s boundaries
Respecting your children’s thoughts and feelings is a way of respecting their boundaries. Verbal abuse and attacks violate their boundaries, as does unwanted touch and sexual exposure or intimacy. Additionally, children’s property, space, and privacy should be respected. Reading their mail or diary or talking to their friends behind their back is definitely off-limits. This also includes tickling a child or hugging them beyond their comfort level.
5. Allow children age-appropriate decisions, responsibility, and independence
Co-dependents have problems making decisions and being interdependent in relationships. Children need support in learning how to problem-solve and make decisions. Parents usually err on one extreme or the other. Many children must take on adult responsibilities too young and never learn to rely on anyone. Some children are controlled or pampered, become dependent and don’t learn to make their own choices, while others are given unlimited freedom without guidance. Opposite types often marry each other. They have an out-of-balance marriage, where one spouse takes care of the other, and both resent it.
Children resist control because they seek self-control. They naturally push for independence. Unfortunately, independence is confused with rebelliousness and so is discouraged. Age-appropriate limits teach them self-control. When they’re ready to test their wings, they need guidance to help them make their own decisions plus the freedom to make and learn from mistakes.
6. Have reasonable, predictable, humane rules and punishments
Co-dependents often grow up in homes where there are no rules or the rules are harsh and rigid, or inconsistent and arbitrary. Children need a safe, predictable, and fair environment. When rules and punishments are arbitrary, harsh, or inconsistent, instead of learning from mistakes, children become angry and anxious, and learn to distrust their parents, authority, and others. Rules should be explicit and consistent, and parents need to be united. Rather than base rules and punishments on emotions in the moment, think through what’s important and what is reasonably enforceable, which varies as children age and are more independent. Explain rules to older children, allow them to question you, and have good reasons to back up your decisions. Research has shown that physical punishment can lead to emotional problems in adulthood. The best punishments are reasonable, humane, and relate to the natural consequences of the wrong-doing.
7. Nurture your children
You can’t give them too much love and understanding. This isn’t spoiling them. Some parent use gifts or not setting limits to show love, but that isn’t a substitute for empathy and affection, which are necessary for children to grow into confident, loving adults.