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Monday, October 19, 2009

Avoiding Codependency with Your Children

In a prior post, I focused on codependence between an active alcoholic or drug addict and his or her partner. In this post, my focus is on how to avoid creating codependent children.

When someone is living in a dysfunctional household with an active alcoholic or drug addict and the partner of the addict is codependent, the household tends to revolve around the person with the substance abuse problem.

Avoiding Codependency with Your Children

Even if the codependent person tells the children that they should not get involved with someone who is abusing drugs or alcohol, children learn more from what we do than what we say. So, what they internalize psychologically is the attitudes and the behavior of the codependent parent as well as the parent with substance abuse problems.

First, let's define codependence. Generally, codependent behavior involves:
  • a strong, sometimes exclusive, focus on the addicted or compulsive person to the detriment of one's self and family, even in the face of serious consequences
  • a denial of one's own needs to take responsibility for and control of the other person
  • a denial of the extent of the problem or, sometimes, that there is even a problem at all in the household
  • an enmeshed relationship with the addicted or compulsive person
  • a distortion of boundaries between oneself and the other person
It is generally accepted among professionals in the addiction field that, in most families where there is a parent with a substance abuse problem or there are dysfunctional dynamics, the rest of the family usually "adapt" to this problem by taking on certain dysfunctional "roles:"

The Enabler (or Adapter):
The Enabler or the Adapter is usually one of the parents. if the other parent has the substance abuse problem. If there is a child with an addiction, it can be one or both parents. The role of the Enabler is to keep the family together at all costs to the detriment of everyone involved.

The Enabler focuses almost exclusively on the person with the addiction to the detriment of him or herself and the other members of the family. She or he will make excuses for the addicted person so that person doesn't feel the consequences of his or her behavior and, as a result, has no incentive to change. Whether she realizes it or not, the Enabler usually likes the sense of control that she feels in the situation as she and other family members overcompensate and over function for the alcoholic or drug addict. However, after a while, this becomes exhausting and, at that point, she will usually feel taken advantage of--even though she was instrumental in setting up the codependent dynamic for herself, the other parent, and the children. Without even realizing it most of the time, the Enabler or Adapter sets up certain rigid roles for the children:

The Hero:
The Hero is often the oldest child and he or she tends to be an overachiever. The primary function of the overachiever in an alcoholic or dysfunctional family is to provide the family with a sense of pride and self worth while hiding the dysfunctional nature of the family dynamics.

Avoiding Codependency with Your Children: The Hero

The family can always point to this child, who tends to be overly responsible and perfectionistic, and say: "Look, things can't be so bad in this family if there's such an intelligent and accomplished child as this."

The Scapegoat:
The child who is the Scapegoat is usually the "identified patient" when dysfunctional families come for family treatment. This child is the one who acts out, gets in trouble at school and, often when he or she is older, gets in trouble with the law. This child acts out the family's problems and becomes identified as the source of the problems rather than the family looking at the addiction and codependent dynamics in the family. Although he or she might not show it outwardly, this child is usually angry, resentful, hurt and he or she has low self esteem.

Avoiding Codependency with Your Children: The Family Scapegoat

The Mascot:
The Mascot is usually the child who provides comic relief in the family, the "clown." His or her behavior is motivated out of fear and a need to divert attention away from the real problems in the family, namely, the alcoholism or drug addiction and codependent dynamics.

The Lost Child:
This child tends to feel rejected, lonely and emotionally lost. He or she also has low self esteem and a lack of identity. His or her presence feels more like "an absence."

None of these roles are static. Individual members might switch roles. What all of these roles have in common is that they are all forms of codependence.

Also, even though we usually associate codependence with alcoholism or drug addiction, there can be codependent dynamics in any family that is dysfunctional, regardless of whether there is an alcoholic or drug addict, or where there is other compulsive or impulsive behavior.

Educating Yourself and Getting Help:
If you think you might be engaging in codependent behavior and you're concerned about the affect it's having on you and your children, it's important to get help and to educate yourself about codependency. Attending Al-Anon meetings and having your teenage children attend Al-A-Teen are important first steps in educating yourself and getting support. I have provided resources for this at the end of this post.

While getting support from self help groups is important, it's also equally important that you seek help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience helping clients with codependency to help you to overcome these behaviors.

Detaching with Love and Compassion:
It's also important that you be able to detach yourself emotionally, with love and compassion, from the strong emotional investment that you might currently have to protecting your alcoholic or drug addicted partner. You have to stop making excuses for your partner. If your partner never feels the consequences for his or her behavior, there will be no motivation to change.

Generally, that means, if your partner is unwilling to get help, rather than nagging him or her, which almost never works, that you focus on your own needs and the needs of your children. This doesn't mean that you are mean, angry or rejecting. On the contrary, it means that, in a calm way, you refuse to get emotionally pulled in by your partner because you've made a decision to focus on yourself and your children.

At some point, if your partner continues to refuse to get help and interventions with supportive family and friends don't work, you and your children might have to leave or you might have to ask your partner to leave. This can be a very difficult and sad thing to do. But, once again, the idea is that your children learn more from what you do than what you say. If you don't want your children to choose alcoholic, drug addicted or compulsive/impulsive individuals as partners or to become codependent themselves, you need to seriously think about what message you're giving your children in the particular family dynamic that you and your partner have created.

Getting Help
It's important to remember that you're not alone. Many people have successfully overcome codependency in their relationships and have gone on to lead fulfilling lives. The important thing is to get help.


Al-Anon Online:


I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist. 

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to learn to overcome codependent behavior so that they can lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me:

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