Rewarding as it is, parenting comes with a lot of challenges — including the opportunity to work through your own unhealthy tendencies, many of which you probably learned from your own parents. According to mental health experts, one common issue that comes up is being a codependent parent.
Codependency is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects people’s ability to have healthy, mutually satisfying relationships. Often, codependent people have low self-esteem, so they look for anything outside themselves — usually other people— to help them feel better. But codependent behaviors toward your kids can harm your relationship with them, even increasing their risk of mental health issues down the road.
No matter where you think you may fall on the spectrum, it’s important to monitor your parenting style for signs of being a codependent parent so you can protect your relationships and, ultimately, your kids’ well-being. Here are seven signs you might be a codependent parent — and some healthier approaches to consider instead.
1. You Can’t Stand to See Your Kid Struggle
Nobody likes to watch their kids suffer. But Julia Katzman, a teen therapist at Plan Your Recovery, says one sign you’re a codependent parent is an unwillingness to let your kid struggle in any way. It’s normal (and good) to protect your kids from actual danger, but keep an eye on your tendency to go to extremes to protect them emotionally. In the long run, your constant interference could prevent your child from learning or growing.
For example, if your kid forgets something at home, what’s your response? If you cancel your plans and drive an extra 40 minutes just to bring your kid what they left, you might be a codependent parent — and your kid will ultimately have a hard time understanding consequences and learning responsibility.
Of course, prioritize your child’s safety. But instead of jumping in to intervene at the drop of a hat, Katzman suggests being present to problem solve and support your kids during difficult moments without stepping in to problem solve for them. “How,” she asks, “is your child ever going to learn to solve a problem without you, or, more importantly, feel comfortable and confident in their own ability to solve problems without you?”
2. You Control Most Details of Your Kid’s Life
Do you voluntarily put yourself in charge of choosing your child’s clothes or what they eat for lunch? Do you have an intense vested interest in who your kid hangs out with or what they like to do? And, most importantly, do you find yourself with a deep need to control how your kid acts or feels? If so, you might be a helicopter parent — one of the most common signs of codependency, according to psychologist Cali Estes.
When your child is younger, it’s normal to be involved in their decision-making. But the goal is to empower your kid to make decisions and deal with problems independently. Instead of hovering close by at all times to make decisions or solve problems, focus on equipping your kids to do these things on their own — even if you don’t love how they do it. Otherwise, Estes says you risk raising a people-pleasing adult who resents you for being too controlling.
3. You Yell as a Behavior-Control Tactic
It’s not uncommon for parents to raise their voices in frustration from time to time. But if you routinely find yourself yelling at your kids with the goal of changing their behavior, you might be inching toward being a codependent parent. Why? When you focus too much on behavior change, you’re making your child responsible for your feelings — essentially, asking them to make you feel better.
Parenting coach Jeanette Hargreaves, founder of Temper Coaching, says instead of yelling out demands for behavior change, it’s important to keep your feelings separate from your kids’ feelings. “Notice how you’re feeling and what’s important to you. Then, also notice how your child is feeling and what’s important to them. Problem solve together from there,” she says.
4. You Don’t Like to Say “No”
Turning off the TV, refusing a new Lego set, or explaining to your kids that they can’t have a friend over might not be easy. But saying “no” is part of parenting. Refusal to set healthy boundaries by saying “no” could be a sign you’re in a codependent relationship with your kids, according to therapist Sam Nabil, founder of Naya Clinics.
If you’re your kids’ “yes person,” it can be tough to start a new pattern. Start by reminding yourself that saying “no” can be a sign of love, especially if it protects your family’s well-being or teaches your child boundaries.
Your kids might struggle when they don’t get their way, so you can explain the same thing to them. And soften the blow by saying “yes” more to the things that actually matter, like going outside for a game of soccer or playing a family board game.
5. You Lean on Your Kid for Emotional Support
Whether you ask your kid to give you a hug when you’re upset or you seek advice from them about your problems, it’s unhealthy to rely on your kids for emotional support. And, according to marriage and family therapist Laura Froyen, it’s a tell-tale sign of a codependent parent.
Instead of putting your kids in an inappropriate caretaker role, Froyen recommends seeking out emotional support from other adults, like your partner, friends, or a therapist. If you’ve struggled with emotional dependence on your kids in the past, it can also help to explain to them why you’re starting new boundaries with your feelings — Froyen says they can feel rejected if it’s all they’ve known.
6. You Involve Your Kid in Grown-Up Conflicts
Another typical way codependency manifests in the child-parent relationship, according to Froyen: involving your kids in conflicts they shouldn’t be part of. Encouraging your kids to take a side in an argument with your partner or confiding in them about your family’s financial struggles creates unnecessary anxiety and projects the role of “caretaker” onto your child.
When possible, do your best to keep your children out of adult business. Although it’s not realistic to keep everything from them — for example, your kids should know if you and your partner are getting divorced or if you lost your job — don’t bring them into the emotional side of the issue. Decide which details are important to divulge and share your decision with the kids in a way that doesn’t encourage them to carry more weight than they should. And in the meantime, you can rely on other adults for support or advice.
7. Your Child Is Your Best Friend
Consider yourself lucky if you get along with your kids and enjoy spending time with them. But tread the line carefully to avoid treating your child like a friend instead of what they are — your kid. Acting like your child’s BFF diminishes their respect for you, because they’ll view you as an equal instead of a parent. It also sends the message that your relationship is a two-way street. In reality, though, you’re the one who’s responsible for your kid’s well-being, not the other way around.
Instead of behaving as though your child is your best friend, set healthy boundaries that reinforce the parent-child dynamic. That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice fun or a close relationship — you can still be affectionate and choose age-appropriate ways to spend time with them. Either way, find ways to take joy in your role as parent. Your kids will be better for it, and in the long haul, so will you.
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