In addiction treatment, we talk a lot about codependency and enabling because the word “codependent” is usually associated with addiction. It refers to the dynamic between the addicted person and codependent family members and significant others who contribute to the addictive behavior — often referred to as “enablers.”
The term “codependency” can also be associated with being emotionally dependent on others in relationships — whether addiction is present or not.
Here we examine the parent-child relationship, and how over-nurturing a child can be seen as codependent parenting, which creates a dysfunctional dynamic within the family system. Codependent parenting can lead to problems for both the parent and the child.
WHEN NURTURING BECOMES ENABLING
Fathers can be over-protective or codependent as parents, but because mothers are typically the primary nurturers in the family unit, they are often the ones who over-parent or over-nurture in an effort to keep their children happy and content. To avoid conflicts or meltdowns, they may frequently give in to their young children’s demands or make decisions that help to minimize a blowout in the moment, but later undermine their efforts to discipline the children and establish boundaries or behavioral guidelines.
This can lead to unruly and defiant children who don’t respect parental or adult authority. If a mother has low self-esteem, it contributes to this problematic dynamic, as she may lack the self-confidence to establish order. She may avoid disciplining her children so she isn’t seen as the “bad cop” — she wants her children to love her and appreciate her, so she doesn’t put her foot down.
“When a parent assists, encourages, supports, protects, takes care of, aids, and stands by their child, this can be a form of nurturing and is considered proper parenting,” says Rodney Robertson, DMin, Director of Family Services at The Ranch. “However, these nurturing traits can often become dysfunctional if a parent fears losing the child, or fears what others think of their parenting.”
Robertson notes that parents can develop these fears if their child is making poor choices that are self-damaging and dangerous or negatively impact the parent’s image. When such fears take hold, positive nurturing traits cross the line into dysfunction as the parent tries to control the child to keep them from making mistakes. The parent’s control is actually an illusion because a parent can never ultimately control the child. This dynamic can cause the parent to increase their controlling or enabling behaviors in an attempt to avoid the consequences of their child’s bad choices.
Parents who have been nurturing their children in this way can easily end up enabling their kids’ negative behaviors. Over time, the children may become increasingly difficult to handle. If this kind of dynamic continues as the children grow and mature, it can make the parent feel frustrated and powerless in the parent-child relationship.
THERE IS PARENTING, AND THERE IS OVER-PARENTING
A parent can also over-nurture by doing too much for their children. As parents, we want to do what we can for our kids, but if we do everything for them, are we nurturing them beyond the point of healthy necessity?
It has been said that in recent generations, many people have become “super-parents” who hyper-manage everything in their children’s lives, from what they eat to what sports they play, to their choices of friends and fashions. They ferry them from activity to activity and make sure they have the latest electronic gadgets or other trendy items. They may even spend more energy (and money) on their children’s interests than their own. These actions may make them feel they are fulfilling their parental duties when, in fact, they are unwittingly enabling a sense of entitlement or dependency in their kids, and preventing them from developing self-reliance.
In the 1990s, the term “helicopter parenting” was coined to describe parents who hover over their children and intervene on their behalf. Instead of modeling self-sufficiency and independence, they readily step in to solve their kids’ problems for them, without realizing that it is sometimes better to step back and let the kids figure stuff out on their own.
Some psychology experts attribute helicopter parenting or over-nurturing to self-doubt and perfectionism, proposing that this type of parenting evolves from living vicariously through a child rather than allowing them to be their own person, distinct from the parent.
A parent with this behavior may be over-compensating for their own low self-esteem, so they work overtime to ensure their children are happy and content. Their motivation may be that they want their kids to have it all and not to suffer any of the hardships they endured, but … what kind of adults are they raising?
HOW CODEPENDENT PARENTING IMPACTS ADULT CHILDREN
Children raised in family environments that are too reward-oriented and permissive or where all their decisions are made for them often encounter emotional and behavioral issues as adults. Like birds with their wings clipped, they may lack the confidence they need to leave the nest and become independent. They also may lack confidence in their own judgment and decision-making abilities or, because so many problems have been handled for them, they may have difficulty managing adversity as a normal part of life.
Is it also possible that parents who confuse nurturing with enabling raise adults who develop addictive behaviors because they can’t manage life’s hardships? Studies have found that addiction results from multiple factors, including hereditary (addiction can run in families, just like other diseases) and environmental influences. It may be that over-nurtured kids mature into adults who experience self-doubt, have difficulty managing responsibilities and adversity, and end up self-medicating their way through life.
“Nurturing can transition into the enabling of a dependent child when a parent aims to control the child’s bad behaviors,” says Robertson. “The parent believes that if they can control their child’s behavior and avert a negative outcome, their child will stop making bad choices. Unfortunately, this approach never works. A better approach might be to let the child learn the consequences of their bad choices or bad behavior.”
Robertson explains that parents who have controlling behaviors are, in reality, enabling a dependent child’s dysfunction. By attempting to rescue their child from bad choices, they are removing the consequences. When a dependent child doesn’t suffer the consequences of their bad choices, there is no motivation or need to change. If a parent continues to “save” a child from their mistakes, the child is actually empowered to continue making the same bad choices or mistakes because they assume they will always be rescued.
According to a research study that investigated levels of well-being among college-age adults, an impact of controlling parenting or over-parenting can be higher levels of depression and decreased satisfaction with life. Parenting behaviors that were characterized as “hovering” or “smothering” were associated with “lower levels of autonomy, competence and relatedness.” The researchers found that college students who had been raised in these types of family environments reported low motivation and low desire to live independently.
RECOGNIZING CODEPENDENT OR ENABLING TENDENCIES IN YOURSELF
There are a few signs you can look out for to help you determine if your parenting style has crossed the fine line from being a nurturing parent to being a controlling or codependent one. You can break dysfunctional behavior patterns, if you are aware of them.
Signs of codependent parenting patterns and suggestions for how to break them:
- Guilt-tripping. If you guilt-trip your kids to manipulate them into do things they won’t readily or willingly do, this can be a sign of codependency. Instead of making them feel guilty about not doing what you ask them, tell them the consequences they will encounter if they don’t do chores or assignments. For example, tell them there will be no dessert after dinner or no play date with a friend until they complete a chore or task — and follow through on that.
- Thinking you are always right. As a parent, do you feel you are always right? Even if your child doesn’t do things exactly as you would, you don’t have to always correct them — or jump in and do things for them. Their way of doing things may be different, but possibly just as effective. Practice stepping back to let kids do things their way — this helps them learn competence. Listen to your child’s feelings and problems. Observe their personality and way of being in the world. Their different view or approach is not necessarily “wrong” or a threat to you or your authority.
- Being overly emotional to maintain/regain control. If you are losing control of a situation or an argument with your kids, do you resort to crying, yelling or other acts of intimidation to restore the balance in your favor? This is a codependent manipulation tactic. Instead of using emotion to control your kids, try giving them choices or options for how they can handle situations, and then offer encouragement.
- Trying to maintain 100% control. Do you feel the need to be in control of your kids at all times and over all they do? To maintain this control, do you switch from subtle manipulation and passive-aggression to dominance and yelling? Try relinquishing a little control and giving them some breathing space to make the right choices on their own — then step back to watch. Offer your support and let things play out. Learn to merely supervise and to restrain yourself from controlling or dominating the details.