This article focuses on how parents can break the cycle of codependency by learning to parent differently. However, you can use these strategies even if you’re not a parent (or your children are grown). You can apply many of these parenting strategies to yourself. Yep! Sounds strange, but you can re-parent yourself by giving yourself what you didn’t get in childhood — whether that’s unconditional love, permission to express your feelings, or respect.
Childhood trauma has lasting effects
Many people who experienced childhood trauma continue to feel the effects of the trauma in adulthood. As a way to cope with the trauma, you may have developed codependent traits such as: trying to fix or rescue others, acting like a martyr, perfectionism, overworking, wanting to feel in control, difficulty trusting, denial, guilt and shame, difficulty identifying and expressing your feelings, people-pleasing, anger, blaming, feeling unlovable, being self-critical and not valuing yourself.
Codependency runs in families
If you have codependent traits, there’s a good chance that your parents and grandparents do, too. Codependency gets unintentionally passed down from one generation to the next. Our parents and caretakers are our earliest teachers, so they have a huge influence on the development of our self-concept and our self-worth (how we think about and treat ourselves).
Because codependency is learned, parents unknowingly model and teach their children codependent ways of thinking and acting. For example, Maria was emotionally abused by her parents and grew up feeling unlovable and ashamed and without the coping skills to deal with her feelings. She “stuffed” her pain. As an adult, her belief that she is flawed shows up as perfectionism, staying in an unhealthy relationship with a man who takes advantage of her financially, and periodic bouts of rage. When Maria has children, they observe their parents’ dysfunctional and codependent patterns and learn to “stuff” their feelings and that they need to constantly prove their worth or they risk rejection.
I don’t want to be like my parents
Many adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) and children who experienced violence and chaos in their families grow up with an intense drive to do things differently – to be a different kind of parent and not repeat their parents’ mistakes. The good news is that this is possible. With guidance, resources, and determination we can change. However, our default settings are strong. We have to work against an unconscious pull to parent the way we were parented.
We tend to parent the way we were parented
The tendency to repeat the parenting style that our parents used, isn’t intentional. It’s what we’re most familiar with. It’s what was modeled and taught to us. We may have a vague notion from watching TV programs or visiting friends, that other parenting strategies exist. But even a strong will to change isn’t enough. We have to change our own codependent patterns and learn how to think and act differently.
Parenting is hard
If you’re a parent, I’m sure you’ll agree that parenting is a thousand times harder than you ever expected. No matter how much you prepare ahead of time, no one’s completely ready for the challenges that parenting presents. And parenting presents extra challenges for ACOAs and anyone who experienced childhood trauma or childhood emotional neglect because you didn’t have a role model for functional parenting.
All parents need a big dose of support and self-compassion. You need practical help (babysitters and neighbors who will carpool to baseball practice) and emotional support (an encouraging friend or a 12-step sponsor) to help you weather the ups and downs of parenthood. You really do need a village or a “parenting tribe” to raise a child. And if your family of origin is dysfunctional, you’ll probably want to intentionally widen your circle of support by connecting with other Moms and Dads who share your values and parenting goals.
We all make mistakes; no one is a perfect parent. So, we also need to consistently be kind to ourselves and forgive ourselves when we screw up.
Breaking the cycle of codependency
If you want to break the cycle of codependency, acceptance is the first step. Denial is strong in families with codependency and it can be painful to acknowledge and cope with the harm that was done to you and how you may have repeated the cycle. I recommend working with a therapist who understands codependency and trauma because this is challenging work and possibly more than you can process and heal on your own. Using the parenting strategies that I describe below can also help.
How to avoid passing codependency down to your children
1. Talk about feelings. In dysfunctional families, children aren’t allowed to express their feelings, so they’re repressed. This can contribute to mental health and relationship problems. You can break this pattern by showing your children that you care about and accept their feelings. Children need our help to learn how to notice, identify, and appropriately express their feelings. You can start by regularly asking your children how they feel and responding with empathy (“that sounds really hard”). In an age-appropriate way, you can also share with your children how you feel. For example, you could tell a young child: “Someone took the stapler off my desk at work and never returned it. I felt frustrated.” If you have young children, they may also enjoy using a feelings chart and watching the animated movie Inside Out with you.
2. Have realistic expectations. It’s very common for parents to think kids can do things that are beyond their developmental level (and then feel frustrated when their children don’t comply or succeed). This is especially likely if your parents expected you to take on adult responsibilities at an early age. If you’re not sure what an average ten-year-old should be able to do, ask your child’s pediatrician or teacher; they can also recommend child development books and parenting classes.
3. Allow your children to have different opinions and beliefs. In other words, encourage your children to be themselves – not just little versions of you. A strong sense of self is a great defense against codependency. When children know and care about themselves, they’re less likely to feel like they have to prove their worth through self-sacrifice and people-pleasing.
4. Let your children try new things. Another way for children to develop their identities and become self-aware is to try new things. People with codependency often have a hard time identifying their interests and strengths. You can prevent this by letting your kids try a variety of activities, meet new people, and take chances.
5. Praise children’s efforts, not accomplishments. It’s natural to want your children to succeed – win the spelling bee, score a goal, or get an “A”. However, this can be a slippery slope. First, not all kids will excel at school or other traditional markers of success. Praising accomplishments can give kids the message that they are only loved and worthy if they accomplish X. Instead, if we focus on kids’ effort, we encourage them to persevere, work hard, and improve themselves.
6. Treat your children with respect. Even if your children misbehave or displease you, there’s never a reason to threaten, belittle, withhold love, or physically harm your children. You know from your own experiences that these behaviors erode a child’s self-worth, trust, and security, and aren’t the way you want to parent. If you find yourself repeating these patterns, it’s especially important that you seek help and support. Shame can be a barrier, but getting help from someone you trust can help you both decrease your shame and find more effective parenting skills.
7. Set consistent rules. Children do best when rules are clear and consistent, but flexible enough to adapt to their changing needs. Try to avoid the extremes of very harsh or very lax rules or making rules, but not enforcing them. Again, getting some guidance from a parenting book or class can be very helpful. I wrote a short article on how to set rules for teenagers, that you can read here.
8. Model healthy boundaries. Boundaries are what we say “yes” and “no” to; they show others what they can expect from us and how they can treat us. You can show your children that it’s OK to say “no” and that you don’t allow others to mistreat you through your own actions. And you can reinforce healthy boundaries by explaining how and why to set boundaries. You can read more about how to set boundaries here. It’s also important to respect your children’s boundaries. As children grow, they will gain autonomy and the ability to set their own boundaries. However, in most cases, even very young children should be given the opportunity to set physical boundaries such as deciding whether they want to give someone a hug.
9. Spend quality time together. We build strong family ties when we have fun and do meaningful activities together. Try to prioritize family time on a regular basis.
10. Show them unconditional love. It’s not enough to feel love for your children; you need to express it in words and actions. Love can be expressed with a hug, helping them with math homework, reading them a bedtime story, spending the afternoon shopping together, or saying “I’m so happy you’re my daughter”. The 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell is a great book for figuring out how to best love your particular child.
I hope these ideas give you a starting place. Parenting is full of shades of gray and exceptions. All children are different and we need to take that into account, of course. As I said, parenting is hard and we’re all trying to figure it out as we do it. And we all have blind spots, which is why it’s so important to be open to feedback and support. And remember that taking excellent care of yourself and attending to your own codependency recovery are quite possibly the most important things you can do to break the cycle of codependency.