Enmeshed Parenting – The Codependent Parent

codependency2Codependency is a ‘relationship addiction’, often seen in parent-child relationships. We can often confuse narcissistic parents with codependent parents. But there are differences. Of course a narcissistic parent raises a codependent child who often attracts narcissistic partners, but that’s a topic for another day.

The difference lies in the degree of control they exert over the children. They also differ in terms of empathy. Codependents have empathy while the narcissistic parents don’t. Often there are overlapping features/traits between codependent parents and narcissistic parents and you will see that in this article.

Who is a Codependent Parent? 

I often speak to clients who have codependent parents. A codependent parent-child relationship is an enmeshed relationship where the boundaries are blurred. Children of codependent parents have a tough time coming out of these enmeshed relationships.
Before I go further, it is important to distinguish between codependent and interdependent relationships.

“Having dependency needs isn’t by itself unhealthy. We all have them. In an interdependent relationship, however, each party is able to comfortably rely on the other for help, understanding, and support. It’s a “value added” kind of thing. The relationship contributes to both individuals’ resilience, resourcefulness, and inner strength. All the same, each party remains self-sufficient and self-determining.” 1
On the other hand a codependent relationship depletes the individual’s resilience, resourcefulness and strength.

In this article I am going to highlight some of the significant characteristics of codependent parents and the impact this has on the children. I will be using brief examples from multiple real life client cases.

1) Child’s welfare vs. Motivated by one’s own interest

In a normal parent-child relationship, the nurturing that the parent gives to the child comes naturally and is influenced by the parent’s desire for the child’s welfare. It is normal for a parent to have aspirations and expectations from the child but in a codependent relationship, it’s more about the parent, what they want, than the child’s genuine needs. Even though the codependent parent thinks whatever they are doing is for the children’s welfare, they fail to see how much of those decisions are based on keeping the child in their control and overly dependent on them.

2) Healthy discussion vs. I’m always right

A Codependent parent is always right. There is no space for a healthy debate or discussion with their children. The children aren’t allowed to express their opinions if those opinions aren’t similar to those of their codependent parents. Any difference of opinion will be seen as an act of rebellion and squashed at the earliest, through subtle manipulation. In the end the codependent parent makes sure that the child’s opinion changes to fit their own opinion.

3) Child’s needs given importance vs. treated as insignificant

The codependent parent has difficulty in understanding the child’s needs. Children of codependent parents repeatedly get the message that their needs and wants are secondary  to their parent’s needs, and hence they stop valuing their own needs. And if they try to assert they are given silent treatment (not being spoken to) or physically punished (spanking).

4) Doing self-work vs. Victim mentality

Codependent parents blame everyone for their problems and take no responsibility for their actions. They refuse to work on themselves and resolve past traumas, instead dumping all their unresolved emotions on their children. They always act like a victim in front of their children. Many a times they share their victim stories with their children to garner  sympathy. They often expect their children to right the wrongs in their past and even blame them if they aren’t able to fulfill these unrealistic expectations.

Sometimes the parent even ends up playing the role of a frail and weak person who needs protection and parenting by the child. One client remembered her mother’s behaviour with bewilderment and resentment, and said, “I don’t understand how she could do this? How could she burden me with her stories? Only her needs were important, what about mine? I couldn’t be a child in that relationship, I had to be a parent to my mother.”

5) Genuine understanding of the child’s feelings vs. making it all about themselves

In a healthy child–parent relationship, parents allow their children to express all their emotions, even their disappointment, anger, hurt etc with the parent and they seek to understand the child’s emotions and genuinely apologize when they have hurt their children. A codependent parent makes everything about themselves. Children of codependent parents often say that their emotions were hurled back at them when they expressed them; the parent turned their emotions around and made it about themselves. For example if a teenager says, “ I am angry with you”, the parent repeats it by saying, “I am angry with you too” . A client said that whenever she called out on her mother’s behaviour, the mother became defensive and angry and said that the daughter didn’t care for her, how rude she was and was this the way to talk to her mother etc. She would start crying when her adult daughter brought this up; till date the daughter feels unheard and misunderstood.

6) Being responsible for one’s own happiness vs. Making the child responsible for the parent’s happiness

Children of codependent parents grow up feeling immensely responsible for their parents’ happiness. They were somehow made to feel that they had to keep pleasing their parent to keep them happy.

7) Healthy self-regulation vs. Rapid mood swings

The codependent parent cannot manage their own emotions; they have difficulty in self-regulation. They vacillate between extreme show of affection and sudden angry outbursts. They cannot handle or cope with any kind of stress and usually have rapid mood swings.

8) Authentic relationship with the child vs. Emotional manipulation

A codependent parent is emotionally manipulative. They will manipulate subtly to get their point across by using guilt as a weapon. They are skilled in taking their child on a guilt trip (“If you do this…., I will not love you anymore”) or threatening them with abandonment. (“If you don’t do this, I will leave you”) This trait is present in narcissistic parents in a higher degree.

9) Healthy protectiveness vs. Unhealthy control

A codependent parent wants control; they play different roles to get an obsessive love and devotion from the child. When children are young, their growing demands for individuality are squashed by either playing the victim card, by being aggressive, giving a silent treatment, or making them feel guilty. A codependent parent has many tricks up their sleeves to keep the child in control. (This is more common in parents with narcissistic traits)

10) Accepting one’s flaws vs. I’m perfect

Although everyone would like to think that they are the best parents, normally parents have a healthy understanding of their own behaviour and are open to changing their behaviour when needed. However, a codependent parent is miraculously blind to their own faults. They don’t take responsibility for their actions; can never believe that the child is hurt because of them. It’s always someone else’s fault.

11) Active listening vs. Never listening

A codependent parent never listens. Adult children of codependent parents (post 30s) realize that they were treated unfairly, they were unheard, visible to the parent only when the parent needed them for their own reasons. Grown up children of codependent parents often say that they were held responsible for bizarre matters that didn’t even make any sense as the parent never listened to their side of the story. For example, a client’s father wanted him to take on the financial burden of his business when he was a teenager. And when he couldn’t handle it, he was blamed for not helping.

12) Healthy expectations vs. Unrealistic expectations: Codependent parents have unrealistic expectations from their children. They expect their adult children to drop everything for them. They are expected to ‘always’ be there for them. While it is healthy to expect support and kindness from your children, thinking that they only exist for you is a sign of selfishness. (this is more common in parents with narcissistic personality disorder)

Some Effects on children ( Will write more in another blog post)
1) They get the feeling that their needs and wants aren’t important.
2) They are plagued by guilt and anxiety.
3) As an adult, they feel that they had to take on adult responsibilities at a young age; behave like a mini-adults.
4) Feeling overly responsible for their parent’s moods and needs.
5) They feel like they are walking on egg shells.
6) They constantly try to appease the codependent parent.
7) As grownups , they tend to be clingy in relationships, although they might also take up the role of a savior for others.

Conclusion: The worst part is that a codependent parent reading this article will think that they are not codependent. They aren’t aware of the way they behave as they think that enmeshment is a healthy parent-child relationship! However, if they are willing to recognize these signs, they can get into psychotherapy and bring about positive changes. They don’t lack empathy unlike the parents with narcissistic personality disorder, which will be the next blog post. Stay tuned!

References:

1 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201412/codependent-or-simply-dependent-what-s-the-big-difference

Image redrawn from the original image found on this page: https://kingofromania.com/2013/06/05/codependency/

 

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About Puja

I am a Counseling Psychologist, Certified EFT Practitioner & Accredited Trainer with AAMET. In my 13+ years of experience, I have effectively used EFT and Counseling to help clients heal their emotional and physical problems.
This entry was posted in boundary setting, Children, EFT, Parenting and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Enmeshed Parenting – The Codependent Parent

  1. Pingback: Parent – Child Copendency – Owl and Porcupine

  2. Greg says:

    a bit harsh

  3. Robyn says:

    As an adult, I realize how I’d allowed my parents’ “codependent” (immature) behavior when I was a child to deeply damage me. I’m actually thankful that I never had children because through my twenties and early thirties, I’d have been a terrible parent. I would have raised children to have deep insecurities and emotional instability like I have because I didn’t know any better. My parents did the best they could, but they were really messed up young people when they raised me, and they had no business trying to be parents. Past trauma, drug and alcohol use, and mental problems were the burdens put on me from the time I was a baby. Most of those descriptions above apply, and #4 especially jumps out at me. Educating myself and studying the Bible have released me from the weight of these burdens and have provided slow healing over the years.

  4. Puja says:

    Robyn, thanks for sharing. I can only imagine how much pain all this must have caused. I’m glad that you’re healing.

  5. Natalie says:

    Puja- this post is incredibly helpful. I am looking for literature to assist with finding ways to draw proper boundaries with my parents. Would you happen to have any suggestions?

  6. Tiny Birds says:

    Thanks to this article and another one I accidentally encountered today, I finally know the name of what my mother is: co-dependent. My mother is severely co-dependent. She’ll even begin her intense guilt trips when I get my own cart and go shopping at my own pace, claiming that I am being insensitive about her condition of spinal stenosis and how she needs me because she needs to lift things. She’s even reported that she had to rely on an attendant in the store rather than me and that, she barked, was wrong for a daughter to her to her mother.

    I am a 27 year-old, African American female and I am close to earning my bachelor’s in business under human resources and management. I am currently working part-time due to me being laid off from my full-time job this past June and my finances are a bit slower than they were 4 years ago. Before I lost my job, I was about to move in an apartment and my mother made the steps to my preparation before I could even get started and made an appointment to have me meet with a landlord of an apartment that was directly next to her house. I turned it down and she immediately told me it was because I was afraid to live alone which wasn’t the truth.

    It was too close to home.

    When I finally got my first car, my mom would manipulate me by lamenting me driving by myself without her because I would get into an accident and there would be no one there to assist me with difficulties that would arise from the encounter. She was so incredibly convincing that I literally did not drive my car but she did. When I drove my vehicle, she would bring herself along and become a backseat driver. When I was familiarizing myself with parallel parking, I would tell her to please be quiet and stop raising her voice as I was trying to concentrate but she would say things like, “no, I need to raise my voice because you will learn through that. That’s how people learn!” Yet, when she was younger learning how to drive, she always dreamily told me that her father would not scream or even speak to her. He would tell her what to do and that was that. So, why would she insist on screaming at me and then always saying what a wonderful driver I am?

    Unfortunately, I am still living at home with mom. This is because she is always talking about her back pains and her difficulty with getting around yet, she gets around just fine. She has her episodes with her spinal stenosis where walking becomes difficult and I am to help her around but, in truth, I am tired. I want to live on my own and whenever I bring this up, she becomes passive-aggressive. Arguments would even arise due to my wants to moving and finally becoming a full adult and these arguments are often ignited by her and there are usually most strange.

    One argument would be me explaining that I am making plans to move and she would say that I am showing signs of being annoyed by her because that’s how children become when their parents become old and/or injured and how she’s going to be in an elder’s home. Always guilt trips about me moving and how she really needs me. Then, let’s say, later that month, she’ll confront me about me being with her too much and that I need a boyfriend and to get married and get my own place and she’ll go on about her being my age already having two cars and having an apartment back in the 1970s. Basically, forcing guilt upon me in a different manner.

    I also have major depressive disorder and slight social anxiety as diagnosed by my family practitioner. Due to my current part-time job, I have no health care so I am lacking in the appropriate medication I need to alleviate my depressive episodes. Instead of understanding, my mother would say during my times at my lowest, “just get up and do something. Get over it. If you were alone and had your own place and going through this, no one would feel sorry for you. You have to get up and get out and do something. Feeling sorry for yourself won’t do it.” Or, if I’m feeling down and she asks me what’s wrong but I don’t feel like telling her, she’ll grow angry and say, “I’m just being a good mother and I’m trying to help! Fine, don’t let me in! Be sad!” So, I’m forced, during my “down-times”, to be happy and make everything seem fine. She often says she hates to see me upset because she tells me she thinks she’s done something wrong by me and she’s desperate to fix what’s wrong.

    On occasion, during arguments, I would calmly point out her ways. I don’t believe in arguing with yelling because I always thought screaming back would only add fuel to the fire. During arguments, she would become vicious and will not give me a word an edgewise. She’d always cut me off and say how “Oh, you’re blaming me again. I’ve done nothing to you! I am not your deadbeat father so how dare you treat me that way! I’ve done everything for you and I gave up so much for you and you turn around and treat me like this! You know how you treat me? You treat me like my sister treats me! She acts nice and sweet when she needs something but when I need something, I always have to kiss ass! When I need you, I don’t get anything! You’re ungrateful!”

    I often end up crying here because these accusations are just aren’t true. It is true that my one of my aunts treat her terribly but I don’t. Her sister would always manipulate my mother and I always would tell her to stop letting her treat her that way but my mom would tell me “no, you don’t understand. She’s my sister. You don’t have siblings so you just don’t get it. I have to help her, you know? I just can’t abandon her.” I would always give my mom money if she really needed it. She would always ask to borrow money and I would tell her, “what? You don’t have to ask me for money. Just tell me what you need and I’ll be more than happy to pay for it.” She would always smile at that. I help her with groceries and everything. Housework is no big deal to me. She even tells me on practically on a daily basis, “without you, I don’t know where I’d be. You mean everything to me and you’re the only one that’s there in my corner. I can always count on my loving daughter.”

    So, where does all of these accusations come from? Just because I don’t dress in that outfit she wants me (although she claims she’s only suggest it) to wear when the family comes over? If I don’t wear that one dress she wants me to, I’m suddenly an ungrateful daughter that does nothing for her and when she wants me to wear that one thing she wants me to wear, I’m suddenly this insensitive person that does not respect the wishes of her mother? When I want to use my own cart and pick up some of my things while I leave her to get her’s, I’m this uncaring person that she would never be toward her own mother and that she’d expected me to be just like her because I’m her daughter and such “care” would just be generally passed down?

    I am seriously telling the truth with all of this and everything I have typed her is barely scratching the surface between me and my mother. I mean, I literally fell into tears after finding out that my mother may be considered co-dependent. I finally know what this is called.

    And, she will never visit a family therapist. She is simply too stubborn (“goat-headed stubborness” as I like to say) and too combative to participate in such a thing. Even when I question this behavior, the environment becomes venomous and very, very loud. She always tells me, “I’m not forcing you to stay with me! I’ve always told you to go out, get a boyfriend, have children, and live on your own! So, don’t blame this on me! But, hey you know what? Fine, go out and live your life and abandon me. You’re near 30 like you said so, go out and do you. I don’t care anymore. Leave me alone.” Then, the silent treatment.

    I can’t afford therapy, honestly. I can barely afford therapy for my own depression so I don’t know what to do…

    I need advice and how to deal with this until I move, which I’ve already began secret preparations for. I’m already building money and I’ve wrote down my checklist on what I have to do with a security deposit, rental fees, car payments, groceries, clothing, a “money cushion”, for emergencies, you name it, I got it covered. As of this moment, I’m saving for a reliable, pre-owned, certified vehicle and I’m constantly looking at the Kelley Blue Book for pay ranges. I am also preparing myself for an exam for the city to become an entry level clerical plus keeping my part-time job for extra earnings.

    So far, mom, I think, has no idea what I’m doing. Shame I have to keep this a secret.

    I really need advice though on how to mentally shield and fortify myself during these rough 2 years of preparations. Thank you for reading about my challenges. I deeply appreciate it.

    -A very exhausted, junior college student looking for her own independence.

  7. Puja says:

    Hi! Thanks for sharing. I can see that you’re really going through a tough time. I will suggest some stress-relief resources to handle the stress that you experience due to your mom’s behaviour and attitude. It’s good that you are already preparing to become more independent in every way.
    Try EFT (emotional freedom techniques). Ideally working with a practitioner will be more helpful but you can certainly start off by yourself. It will help you to deal with the anxiety and the stress of moving. It is a self-help tool that can ease the pressure and the stress that you face on a daily basis.
    Here are some video links for tapping: tapping points and how to tap.
    https://www.thetappingsolution.com/tapping-101/

    tapping meditation for morning clearing (audio)
    https://www.thetappingsolution.com/blog/tapping-meditation-morning-clearing-jessica-ortner/

    clearing overwhelm (audio)
    https://www.thetappingsolution.com/blog/overwhelm-calm-tapping-meditation/

    download the free manual here
    https://aametinternational.org/discover-eft/eft-resources/

  8. Beverly Rehfeld says:

    Thanks for the article. It is the beginning of my own search for help. However, I am the mother…. And about a year ago, I began to realize how I have forged and been so very responsible for the co-dependent relationship with my oldest son. Since that realization hit, we have found him an amazing therapist who has so helped him maneuver through the confusion, fear and anxiety this type of enmeshment can bring. Yes, I searched for a therapist to help my son become free of me. He has grown by leaps and bounds and though it has been difficult, I have seen him become more confident and much more his own person. For that I am grateful. However, there is still the “me” factor. I still have the same tendencies and the weight of it overwhelms me at times. Though I was raised in a ton of abuse (physical, emotional, spiritual) myself, there is much I have overcome and not passed along to my family. However, I realize that I have so tried to avoid the abuse and rejection issues of my own upbringing that I overcompensated by smothering, hovering, and over-protecting. And in doing so, my son was losing himself because of me. With my son in therapy, I cannot afford to secure another therapist for myself. Could you refer me to some teachings, books, articles, that can help the one that has been the cause of the co-dependent relationship? I still struggle with some of the very things you iterated in your article that the parent tends to do. And I do not want to. I want to contribute in healthy ways to my son’s life, not in ways that are destructive. Thank you for your time.

  9. Puja says:

    Hi Beverly,
    That’s a very brave step, Beverly. By referring your son to a good therapist, you’re really helping him navigate the confusing territories of co-dependency. Lots of parents aren’t aware of this and it’s so refreshing to come across someone who is aware and willing to help herself and her kids.
    So the fact that you are aware of the underlying patterns that drive your behaviours is a very good start. Being conscious of something is the first step towards healing it.
    Here are some resources that you can check:
    https://www.amazon.com/Co-Dependent-Parent-Yourself-Freeing-Child/dp/0062501267
    https://blogs.psychcentral.com/imperfect/2016/04/what-causes-codependency/
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-is-2020/201707/the-root-overprotective-parenting-codependent-parents

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