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The Question No 4-Year-Old Should Ever Have to Answer

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A boy I once knew told me of his first vivid memory: He was 4 years old, sitting in his bedroom, and his parents were standing on opposite ends of the room. His parents were separating and he remembers his mom asking, “Who do you want to live with, me or him?”

He remembers looking back and forth, from his mom to his dad, until finally saying, “Mom.”

“I knew I had to take care of her,” he told me.

I’m sure his mother wasn’t physically handicapped, or a danger to herself in any way. I’m sure she never came out and said, “Take care of ME” to her preschool-aged child. So what was it about her — about the family’s dysfunction — that made a little boy sense that he needed to emotionally take care of his mother?

I never forgot that story, but it would be years before I learned that this common family dynamic had a name — codependency — and that it deeply affected my own life.

What is codependence?

Codependents give and give — even when their advice/service/help isn’t asked for — but we’re shockingly terrible at taking care of our own needs. We chronically put ourselves last. We might give to the point of anger, while we silently seethe, “Look at all I do for you!” Codependents feel comfortable in the victim role.

Codependents are known to have “control” issues, and self-esteem issues, and boundary issues. Either we let people trample all over our boundaries (what are boundaries?), or our walls are so thick and so deep that we can’t get close to people.

Codependents like to fix people, to rescue, to enable. (Hi, Helicopter Moms.) We let other people’s moods control our emotions (and then we blame them for making us feel a certain way).

It’s not like codependents are obviously abusive: we’re responsible, dependable, selfless, always there to help. And because codependents are best known for attracting needy, dysfunctional people into our lives (alcoholics, addicts, etc.), our problems aren’t as overtly damaging.

Yet, according to Jerry Moe, Vice President of Betty Ford Center’s Children’s Programs, “kids can learn just as many self-defeating, negative, destructive habits and behaviors from the [codependent] parent who doesn’t drink or use drugs, as the parent who uses drugs.”

When you consider that 1 in 4 children are exposed to alcoholism or drugs at home, and that, according to Moe, all children of addicts are also children of codependence, and that not all codependent parents are dealing with addiction or alcoholism, that’s a lot of children affected.

Where does codependence come from?

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“Codependency is almost always a result of growing up in a family in which the child is called upon, covertly or overtly, to care for people long before that would be developmentally appropriate,” said Beverly Berg, MFT, PhD in Loving Someone in Recovery.

She gives the example of an alcoholic dad who needs caretaking and can’t handle the normal demands of parenting, but it could also be a mom with a mental illness like depression, or a chronic physical illness. It could be a pill-addicted dad, or a parent with crippling codependence and a string of unhealthy relationships.

It can be subtle and unintentional. But anything that forces a child to give up his or her own emotional health in order to “keep the peace” or cover for a parent can set up a kid for codependence.

Beyond all else, most experts — including Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, Beyond Codependency, and The New Codependency — recognize that codependence stems from “unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family.”

These rules include stuffing down feelings, needs, thoughts, and desires to make other people happy, or to avoid rocking the family boat. Other family rules, according to Beattie, include:

  • Don’t identify, talk about, or solve problems.
  • Don’t be who you are — be good, right, strong, and perfect.
  • Don’t be selfish — take care of others and neglect yourself.
  • Don’t trust other people or yourself.

And if we look at some of Beattie’s suggestions for new, healthier rules in The New Codependency, we can get a sense of what our kids really need:

  • It’s okay to feel my feelings and talk about them when it’s safe and appropriate, and I want to.
  • I can think, make good decisions, and figure things out.
  • It’s okay for me to be who I am.
  • It’s okay to be selfish sometimes, put myself first sometimes, and say what I want and need.
  • It’s okay for me to take care of me. I can say no and set boundaries.
  • I can grow at my own pace.
  • I can love and be loved. And I can love me, because I’m lovable, and I’m good enough.

How can we do better?

Kids don’t need to only hear these things, of course, because codependence isn’t something that’s learned through words; it’s learned through actions. Kids have to see their parents model a healthy amount of self-love, emotional awareness, and boundary enforcing.

Kids need to have their own boundaries recognized and respected. They need to believe they can take care of themselves without a parent swooping in and rescuing them from the slightest hint of disappointment or sadness or hardship. Kids need to be loved, nurtured, and listened to. They don’t need shame or control. They don’t need to be enmeshed with their codependent parent, and be expected to make their mother happy.

The best thing we can do for our kids, especially as codependents, is to be our healthiest self.

It requires us to look deeply into ourselves — maybe in dark, dusty corners of our minds that are too frightening or painful to look at. It means being conscious of our hardwiring and recognizing the damaging mind patterns. It means putting ourselves at the top of our list, not the bottom.

It means saying, “Little boy, you don’t have to take care of your mom” — not just in the words we say, but in the way we live our lives.

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