By Darlene Lance, MFT
Research shows that codependency is learned in families and passed on generationally. It prevents the development of healthy, independently functioning individuals. When parents are codependent, codependency gets transmitted, unless they’re self-aware and consciously make an effort to respond to their children in healthy ways that counteract their codependent patterning. But because codependency is learned, it can be prevented and unlearned.
The problem is, like addiction, codependency is characterized by denial. This means you may not even be aware that you’re codependent and are unwittingly teaching it to your children, despite your best intentions. The most preventative steps you can take are to improve your self-esteem and communication. Some of the main symptoms of codependency are:
- Being overly focused on someone or something
- Low self-esteem
- Nonassertive communication
- Denying or devaluing 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. Here are traits of healthy families that allow children to develop into independent, functional adults:
- Free expression of thoughts, feelings, and observations
- Equality and fairness for all
- Healthy Communication
- Reasonable rules
- Nurturing and supportive
- Healthy boundaries
- Problem solving
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 organizations, even countries, is freedom to express thoughts and observations. Secrets and no-talk rules are common in dysfunctional families. For instance, forbidding mention of grandma’s limp or daddy’s drinking 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 and merit. You don’t have to agree with what they say, but listening to understand shows that you respect them and teaches them self-respect. Speak to your children with courtesy. Avoid criticism, which is destructive to self-esteem. Instead, praise the behavior you desire. You can set limits and explain negative consequences of behavior you want dislike without name-calling or criticizing, such as, “It makes me and others angry when you tie up the bathroom for half an hour. We’re all kept waiting,” instead of, “You’re selfish and inconsiderate to tie up 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 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. With good intentions, often parents 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. Expressing feelings doesn’t mean that they should be free to act on them. Tommy can be angry at his sister, but it’s not okay to hit her.
4. Respect your children’s boundaries.
Respecting children’s thoughts and feelings is a way of respecting boundaries. Verbal abuse and attacks violate their boundaries, as does unwanted touch and sexual exposure or intimacy. This also includes tickling beyond a child’s comfort level. Additionally, children’s property, space, and privacy should be respected. Reading their mail or diary or talking to their friends behind their back are off-limits.
5. Allow children age-appropriate decisions, responsibility, and independence.
Codependents 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 receive or 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, which isn’t rebelliousness and should be encouraged. 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.
Codependents 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 the 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 this isn’t a substitute for empathy and affection, which are necessary for children to grow into confident, loving adults.
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and life coach with a broad range of experience, working with individuals and couples for twenty-four years. Her focus is on helping individuals overcome obstacles to leading fuller lives, and helping couples enhance their communication, intimacy, and passion.