Is my teen daughter co-dependent?

In working with teen girls and young women, I often see the early stages of co-dependency taking shape and we work very hard to prevent it from getting worse and eliminate it altogether if possible. To them, it is can be very confusing and they can have a difficult time understanding why it's "not a good thing".  They often confuse co-dependency with compassion and... love.

Co-dependency is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot but I sometimes wonder if we really understand what it means.  Let's take a closer look...

What is co-dependency?

Darlene Lancer, J.D.; LMFT has a great definition...

"Codependency is characterized by a person belonging to a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person relies on the other for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs. It also describes a relationship that enables another person to maintain their irresponsible, addictive, or underachieving behavior."

I would add that there is typically an excessive emotional over-reliance on another person and one's sense of identity becomes wrapped up in the person and/or relationship.  On a very basic level the person doesn't learn how to be an individual and therefore depends on another person for that sense of self.  They don't understand where they end and another person begins.  Those lines are often blurred.

Red flags

There are certain traits she might start to display that give you a clue that a problem is brewing.  When reading through this list keep in mind that it is a combination of these traits that starts to determine the level of co-dependency...

  • Obsessive
  • People Pleasing
  • Low Self-worth
  • Difficulty saying "NO"
  • Difficulty being alone
  • Stays in a relationship (dating or friends) despite mistreatment or abuse
  • Relying on other people's opinions
  • Losing yourself in a relationship
  • Care-taking
  • Boundary problems
  • Controlling
  • Explosive anger
  • Difficult time verbalizing their feelings
  • Overly focused on the needs of others
  • Tries to manage another person's emotions (i.e. make them happy, stop their sadness)
  • Extremely loyal
  • Excessive guilt
  • Needs to be needed
  • Perfectionistic

This is a great list to review with your daughter if you suspect she might be starting a co-dependent relationship. 

Common relationships that fuel co-dependency

Friends - I mostly see this behavior start developing when a friend of hers starts to have a lot of emotional problems.  Maybe her friend has a dysfunctional family environment or is developing a more severe mental illness and is really confused about herself.  It can bring out co-dependency in your daughter.  She can start to feel this overwhelming sense of responsibility and cross over the line of compassion and empathy to "I have to fix it or make it better".  You will most likely see a lot of anxiety in your daughter due to the need to control something she can't.

Romantic - Dating relationships often bring out co-dependency, especially if they are having sex.  It is very common for her to lose herself in the relationship after they have been intimate.  She isn't equipped to handle the emotions that come with this behavior.  Anytime the relationship is obsessive, it's co-dependent. 

If he has substance abuse and/or anger problems, you can almost guarantee she will start to develop co-dependent behaviors because of the care-taking and emotional roller-coaster nature of the relationship. 

Family - Family dysfunction is prime breeding ground for co-dependent behavior.  A sick family member, someone struggling with substance abuse or dependency, a co-dependent parent or grand-parent are the most common scenarios. Behavior is often modeled at home and normalized. 

The teen years are the early stages of identity development.  When there are substantial problems at home it can't not effect how she develops her sense of self.  Having to take care of family members is not inherently a bad thing but it is important to watch her.  It can take over her life.  I've met girls who are consumed with having to watch out for a family member, to the point of complete self-sacrifice.  Unfortunately she learns to not think of her self or wants... ever.  She ends up feeling a lot of guilt because she sees herself as unworthy of having an opinion or voice.

How you can help

I tend to encounter the aftermath of a relationship that has ended and the emotional pain that is left over.  It is very common for her to be struggling with anxiety and depression due to the ripping of herself apart from the relationship.  As a parent you often feel helpless as you watch her suffer.  Here are 3 things you can do to help...

Get healthy yourself.  The best thing you can do is model healthy relationships.  If you struggle with co-dependency it's a great opportunity to teach her about it and get help.  Show her that it is possible and necessary to change.

Boundaries - she needs to learn where she ends and begins and another person ends and begins.  She needs to learn to be an individual and not overly dependent on others for her emotional stability.  There are all sorts of good material on setting boundaries.  My favorite is Boundaries by Dr. Cloud & Dr. Townsend.  Their whole series is excellent. 

Talk about co-dependency.  She will not understand at first.  Use examples from stories she tells or movie/tv shows.  When you can learn to spot the behaviors, you can talk to her about them and why they are unhealthy.  It's all about emotional health.  When you can connect her anxiety or stress to being overly concerned about others to the point she loses herself, she might start to get it.

Co-dependency is a complicated condition that confuses people.  There is such a fine line between compassion and co-dependency.  Emotions play a significant role.  When she gives of herself to the point she is angry, resentful or bitter, the line has been crossed.  We will all struggle with it at times but when it becomes a chronic way of life, it is very harmful to ourselves and others. 

If she does not learn to recognize the signs and learn to say no, she will invite unhealthy, controlling, clingy people into her life. As her parent you have a great opportunity to help point these traits out now and set her up for sucessful, healthy relationships in the future!