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Codependency is a term used to describe a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person excessively relies on another for approval, identity, and a sense of self-worth.
This pattern of behavior can manifest in various types of relationships, including romantic relationships, family dynamics, friendships, or even work relationships.
A codependent parent-child relationship is one in which the parent relies on the child for emotional support, validation, and a sense of purpose. This can place a heavy burden on the child, as they may feel responsible for meeting their parent’s emotional needs and may prioritize their parent’s well-being over their own.
In a codependent dynamic, children often learn to prioritize the needs and emotions of the parent over their own. This pattern can persist into adulthood, making it difficult for individuals to assert their own needs, set boundaries, and prioritize self-care.
Navigating a codependent relationship with a parent, especially with a mother, can be complex and challenging. Many individuals recognize the importance of maintaining a relationship with their parent while also acknowledging the need for a healthier dynamic.
Here are some strategies that may help in fostering a healthier relationship with a codependent mother:
Educate Yourself: Signs of Codependency
Take the time to learn more about codependency, its characteristics, and how it can impact relationship with your mother.
In many cases, patterns of codependency can be traced back to individuals’ own experiences in their families of origin. If your mother grew up in a dysfunctional family or one where her emotional needs were not adequately met, she may carry unresolved issues and unmet needs into her adult relationships, including her relationship with her own children.
Parents who experienced a lack of emotional support or nurturing in their own childhood may unconsciously seek to fulfill those needs through their relationship with their child. This can create a cycle where the child, in turn, may feel a strong sense of responsibility to meet the emotional needs of their parent, perpetuating the codependent dynamic.
Understanding this background can be a crucial part of addressing codependency. It doesn’t excuse or justify the behavior, but it can provide insight into the origins of the patterns at play.
To deal with and overcome codependency, it’s helpful to understand codependency, its causes, and how it can affect your current relationships. Acknowledging these dynamics and working towards healing and healthier patterns can be an essential step for both you and your mother.
It’s not about blame but about understanding that you are not responsible for your mother and that she must take control of her own life – you are only responsible for yourself.
1. Controlling behavior
A codependent parent may feel insecure when a child makes decisions that may jeopardize the parent’s sense of control. This can cause a child to forego pursuing dreams and goals that are within the norms of development.
A mother may go to great lengths to meet the needs of her children, often neglecting her own well-being in the process. This can include taking on more responsibilities than necessary or constantly putting others’ needs before her own.
When a parent exhibits controlling behaviors, it can hinder the child’s ability to develop a healthy sense of independence and autonomy.
The controlling parent may unintentionally create an environment where the child becomes overly dependent on them for decision-making, validation, and a sense of self-worth.
If a child seeks independence, the mother might use manipulation tactics such as victim-playing, emotional outbursts, and guilt-tripping to hinder them from “abandoning” her.
A child raised in a controlling environment may struggle to make decisions independently. The parent’s constant involvement in decision-making can inhibit the development of the child’s problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
Constant control and micromanagement can also contribute to the child’s low self-esteem. If the child doesn’t have the opportunity to make choices, take risks, and learn from mistakes, they may doubt their own abilities and value.
The child may develop a fear of independence or making choices on their own. They might feel anxious or uncertain when faced with decisions, having become accustomed to relying on their parent for guidance.
As a result, the child may become excessively reliant on the parent’s approval and validation. This approval-seeking behavior can persist into adulthood, influencing the child’s relationships and decision-making processes.
2. Boundary Confusion
Codependent parents may have difficulty setting and maintaining healthy boundaries becoming overly enmeshed with their child’s emotional experiences.
Codependent mothers often struggle to differentiate between their own emotions and those of their children. They might intrude on their child’s privacy, dismiss or downplay their child’s need for autonomy, or expect their child to constantly share feelings, experiences, and plans with them.
They might also struggle to acknowledge and support their child’s growing need for autonomy. They may resist the child’s efforts to assert independence, viewing it as a threat to their own sense of purpose or identity.
And, they may over-identify with the child’s emotions, seeing their child’s successes and failures as a direct reflection of their own worth.
Children of codependent mothers may find it challenging to set boundaries in other relationships as they grow up. They might feel guilty or anxious about asserting their own needs or desires, fearing it might hurt or alienate others.
As a result, they might struggle to develop a separate sense of self and to navigate their own emotional landscape.
This can lead to a pattern of overcommitment, burnout, or staying in unhealthy relationships due to an ingrained belief that they should prioritize others’ needs over their own.
Codependent mothers may constantly place their children’s needs and desires above their own, even to their own detriment. They may adopt a martyr-like role, emphasizing the sacrifices they’ve made for their children.
This can lead to feelings of guilt in the child, who may feel responsible for their mother’s well-being or burdened by a sense of indebtedness.
A codependent mother can blur the lines between caregiving and caretaking:
- Caregiving: This is a healthy form of support where a mother provides care that empowers and helps the child grow, fostering independence and self-sufficiency.
- Caretaking: This involves a mother who overly attends to her child’s needs, often anticipating problems or stepping in without being asked.
The child might feel an immense sense of guilt or obligation toward their mother, feeling like they owe her for the sacrifices she has made.
This can lead to difficulty in making autonomous decisions that might upset or disappoint the mother.
The child may also develop a sense that love is conditional upon sacrifice, potentially leading to patterns of self-sacrifice in their adult relationships.
This can stifle the child’s growth, promoting dependence and undermining their confidence in handling life’s challenges independently.
4. Overly Involved
Codependent mothers often micromanage or are overly concerned with the minute details of their children’s lives. This can range from obsessively monitoring their activities to making decisions on their behalf without considering the child’s feelings or preferences.
The child may grow up with an underdeveloped sense of self, feeling insecure about making decisions or exploring their individuality. They might frequently seek external validation and feel uncomfortable with autonomy.
An adult child may seek and need constant validation from others
It is important to understand whether or not your need for approval stems from a childhood where validation was unpredictable. Recognizing this can help you differentiate between your genuine feelings and those conditioned by your upbringing.
Consequently, as an adult, you might continually seek external affirmation, often from unsuitable sources or detrimental life choices.
Decision-making can become an ordeal, as you may remain tethered to your parent’s opinion or find yourself perpetually seeking others’ approval in personal and professional spheres.
When faced with a decision, ask yourself, “Is this choice for me or to gain approval?” Give yourself permission to prioritize your needs and desires.
5. Characteristics of Healthy Parent-Child Relationships
The environment in which we are raised often becomes our baseline for what is considered normal or acceptable. If you grow up in an environment where certain behaviors, even dysfunctional ones, are consistently exhibited, these behaviors can become normalized.
For example, if a child consistently plays the role of the support figure for a parent, they may not question this role because it has become a normalized part of their identity.
Healthy parent-child relationships are characterized by positive, supportive, and nurturing interactions that contribute to the child’s well-being and development. Here are some key characteristics of healthy parent-child relationships:
- Safety – Children should feel they can rely on their parents to provide their basic needs of food, comfort, support, and love. When a child feels safe, they can explore the world freely and are more able to trust others.
- Unconditional Love – A child needs to know that they are loved regardless of whether they fail or succeed. They should feel worthy and lovable for who they are, even when they make mistakes.
- Mutual Respect – Respect is a two-way street. Both parents and children treat each other with kindness and consideration. Parents respect the child’s individuality, opinions, and boundaries, while children learn to respect parental authority.
- Open Communication – Effective communication is essential. Parents and children in healthy relationships feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Open communication fosters trust and understanding.
In codependent parent-child relationships, the child’s needs, wishes, and individuality are not sufficiently respected – they are expected to put these aside and submit to their parent.
The child may fear rejection or abandonment if they assert their own needs or pursue their individuality. This fear can be a powerful force, influencing the child to conform to the parent’s expectations.
“Detach with Love”
“Detaching with love” is a concept often used in the context of relationships with individuals struggling with addiction, but it can also be applicable in the context of codependent relationships. This concept emphasizes the importance of creating emotional and psychological distance while still maintaining care and compassion.
Dr. Sharon Stone, a psychotherapist with expertise in codependency, suggests that recovering from codependency must involve “detaching with love,”
“Detaching doesn’t mean abandoning or that we stop caring. In fact, we have to detach because we care so much, and need to be needed, that it hurts us to stay so closely entwined in someone else’s life and problems.”
Detaching with love encourages individuals to prioritize their own well-being. This means taking care of one’s physical, emotional, and mental health, even if it involves stepping back from the intense emotions or dynamics of the relationship.
Detachment doesn’t imply complete emotional disconnection. Instead, it suggests creating a healthy emotional distance while still expressing love, care, and support from a position of strength rather than codependency.
Here’s how an adult child can “detach with love” from a codependent parent:
- Establish Boundaries: Detaching with love requires establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries. Clearly define your boundaries — this may involve setting limits on how much time you spend together, the level of involvement in your personal life, or any behaviors that are not acceptable to you.
- Practice Emotional Detachment: Detaching emotionally doesn’t mean shutting down your feelings, but it involves establishing emotional boundaries. Allow yourself to feel and express your emotions without being overwhelmed by your parent’s emotional state.
- Develop Independence: Cultivate your independence by making decisions and choices based on your own values, preferences, and needs. This may involve pursuing personal interests, career goals, or forming relationships that are meaningful to you.
- Forgive and Let Go: Holding onto anger or resentment can hinder your personal growth. Remember, forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting or allowing harmful behaviors to continue.
Establish and Maintain Boundaries
Clearly define what is acceptable and what is not in your relationship with your parent. This might involve limiting the time you spend together or their level of involvement in your personal life.
Setting limits with your parent, while challenging, can be a transformative and liberating process.
If needed, take breaks from communication or interactions with your parent.
This could involve temporarily reducing the frequency of visits, phone calls, or other forms of contact. This may also involve limiting the extent to which you take on your parent’s emotional burdens or allowing yourself the space to feel and process your own emotions without being overwhelmed by theirs.
Setting limits may be met with resistance, guilt, or attempts to manipulate. It’s essential to remain firm and consistent in upholding the boundaries you’ve set as consistency reinforces the message that your limits are non-negotiable.
Periodically reevaluate your boundaries and limits. As circumstances change or as you and your parent make progress, you may find opportunities to adjust your boundaries in a way that continues to support your well-being.
To get started, you could try:
- Take some time for self-reflection. Identify specific behaviors or dynamics in the relationship that you find challenging or unhealthy. Understand your own needs, feelings, and what boundaries you’d like to establish.
- Clearly define the boundaries you want to set. This could include limits on communication frequency, personal space, involvement in decision-making, or any other aspects that contribute to a healthier dynamic.
- Plan how you’ll communicate your boundaries. Choose a time when both you and your parent can engage in a calm and open conversation. Be prepared to express your feelings and needs assertively.
- Frame your communication using “I” statements to express your feelings and needs without assigning blame. For example, say, “I need some space to focus on my own well-being” instead of “You are too controlling.”
It takes two individuals to maintain such dynamics, and both parties play a role in the relationship patterns. Taking responsibility for your own actions and stopping enabling dysfunctional behaviors is a vital step toward breaking the cycle of codependency.
By always saying yes, giving in to your mother’s demands, and putting your own needs and feelings last, you are enabling codependency.
Thus, it is important to acknowledge and reflect on your own role in the codependent relationship. Understand the patterns of behavior, enabling actions, and communication styles that contribute to the dynamic.
The only way the relationship will change is if your mother learns that you will no longer take responsibility for her life. Your focus should be on building your own identity and life that is separate from your mother’s.
- Communicate: Discuss your feelings and boundaries with your mother. This might be challenging, but it’s essential for them to understand where you stand.
- Practice Saying “No”: One of the hallmarks of codependency is an inability to refuse requests, even if they’re unreasonable. Learning to say “no” is crucial.
- Avoid Rescuing: When your parent faces consequences of their actions, resist the urge to jump in and “fix” the situation for them.
- Set Boundaries: Clearly define what is acceptable and what is not in your relationship with your mother. This might involve limiting time spent together or specifying topics that are off-limits.
- Encourage Independence: Instead of doing things for your mother, encourage them to take responsibility for their actions and tasks. Offer guidance rather than solutions.
- Stay Consistent: Breaking the enabling pattern won’t happen overnight. There might be setbacks, but it’s essential to stay committed to the changes you’re making.
Recovering From Codependency
Recovering from codependency is a gradual process that involves self-reflection, establishing healthier patterns, and fostering personal growth.
Growing up with a codependent mother can lead you to develop codependent traits. Try to reflect on your patterns of enabling, caretaking, and seeking external validation and identify the underlying beliefs and fears that contribute to these behaviors.
Being enmeshed with your mother might mean you feel unsure about who you are and what you want in life. Take time to get to know yourself better and develop your own identity: What is important to you? What are your boundaries? What are your personal goals?
Your self-worth should not be dependent on pleasing other people. Identify and challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to codependency and work on building a positive self-image and recognizing your own worth independent of others’ opinions.
Learn to communicate your needs, desires, and limits assertively and practice saying “no” when necessary.
Prioritize self-care to nurture your physical, emotional, and mental well-being by engaging in activities that bring you joy, relaxation, and fulfillment. Taking care of yourself is essential for breaking codependent patterns.
Consider seeking the guidance of a therapist or counselor. A mental health professional can provide support, help you explore the root causes of codependency, and offer tools for developing healthier relational patterns.
Julia Simkus edited this article.
Fuller, J.A. & Warner, R. (2000). Family Stressors as Predictors of Codependency. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 126, 5-22.
Stone, S. (2020). Codependent’s Guide to Detaching with Love. Live Well with Sharon Martin. https://www.livewellwithsharonmartin.com/detaching-with-love/Suldo, S.M. (2009). Parent-Child Relationships. In R. Gilman, E.S. Huebner & M.J. Furlong (Ed.) Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (pp.245-257). New York: Routledge.