One Way We Unintentionally Foster Codependency

Several days ago, I shared a post from Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. I found there was quite a bit of discomfort about what she said among parents. And, a couple of my friends even private messaged me to clarify for themselves what the meme meant for them and their kids. Before you read on, I want you to be thinking about your own emotional awareness and see if what she says was also true of your childhood.

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Co-dependent adults struggle to identify who they are and what they need as independent from others; it's as if their sense of self is dependent on the approval or well-being of someone else.  This is the essence of an "outside-in" lens for the world: Other people show me who I am.  I've only learned to find myself and feel safe when other people are happy with me. . Co-dependency is really about self-alienation, because you've been taught that your own wants and feelings threaten the stability of a relationship, so you need to get as far away from yourself as possible. Individuals wired this way are attracted to partners who are narcissistic and low on empathy, the perfect opposing puzzle piece for co-dependent traits. . Co-dependency may appear in adulthood but it starts in early childhood; remember, we are wiring our kids for their relationship patterns. . During childhood, kids are asking these questions: "Who do I have to be to achieve emotional safety? How safe are my own feelings and needs?" . There are very few things that I tell parents not to do.  High on the list are Don't Hit, Don't Terrify, and… . DON'T LINK YOUR CHILD'S EMOTIONS WITH YOUR OWN. . Don't wire your child so that her feelings sit right next to their impact on you. This is not a way to create empathic kids; it is a way to create co-dependent adults. . HOW DO WE CREATE EMPATHY AND AVOID CO-DEPENDENCY? By creating *distance* between our kids' feelings and our own – seeing feelings not for their impact on us but for the pain they cause in our child. . Instead of "That hurts Mommy's feelings," say, "You must be really upset about something to speak to me that way." Instead of "That makes Mommy sad," say, "I can't listen well when you're speaking to me in that tone. I want to hear about what's happening for you. I care about your feelings and you're allowed to have them." . And when you do have big feelings? Take responsibility for these as your own. Tell your child, "You're noticing that I'm upset. Yes, it's true. And here's something else true: My feelings are MINE. You don't cause my feelings and you don't have to take care of them."

A post shared by Dr. Becky Kennedy (@drbeckyathome) on

I saw clearly what she was talking about because I experienced it as a child and vowed never to do it to my own children. As someone who has had to heal from emotional manipulation both as a child and an adult, let me say this first:

OTHER PEOPLE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS

So many of us don’t understand this, because we’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that our impact on other people matters more than our ability to recognize and adjust what is happening inside of us. BOTH of these things are important and children understand neither until we show them. There’s an entire industry around “emotional intelligence” and re-teaching adults how to look into themselves to better understand how to relate to others. We wouldn’t need to be trained in emotional intelligence if we learned about it organically as children.

Everything we do here at Peace I Give is centered on the idea that behavior is communication and that children need our support more than they need our chastisement. I recently wrote a how-to on emotion coaching that may be of some use to those of you who are reading this and feeling uncertain about how to address behaviors that impact you negatively. I am not saying it’s ok for children to do hurtful things to us. I’m saying that, as parents, our first step has to be to help them understand why they are lashing out and resolve the root issue. The behavior is merely a symptom.

Within our healthy adult relationships, it’s good to talk with each other in times of peace about our feelings. I can tell my husband that, when he behaves in a certain way, it triggers feelings of sadness or anger in me without being concerned that he will take on the responsibility of being my therapist. He understands the impact of his behavior and can choose to make a change once he knows something he did was not appreciated. Know what else I do that is not healthy? Sometimes, in my frustration, I say things like “You obviously don’t care what I think” and “Do you even love me?” This is emotional manipulation and I daresay most of us do it from time to time when we are not in a good place psychologically. It comes from emotional immaturity, which I still struggle with as a fully grown adult because healthy emotional responses weren’t modeled for me consistently as a child. I am in the process now of reparenting myself.

Just like adults, children can understand their impact on other people when we have conversations with them in times of peace. However, that’s not usually what happens. Usually, we react to our children’s behavior in the heat of the moment, attaching our emotions to their behavior by telling them how they made us feel. They may change their behavior as a result, but not to improve as people. Any change that follows is meant to avoid upsetting others and that breeds codependency. With children, we need to address the behavior and name the emotion in order to build the emotional awareness they so desperately need for positive mental health.

I told a story over on the blog’s Facebook page that I’ll relate here as well. My mother came for a visit last week. Lately, my son has been lashing out at me for reasons related to the transition from public school to homeschool. We’ll be working with an OT to help us identify what needs he has that I’m not meeting, but in the meantime, he has been pinching, hitting, and kicking me. While my mother was with us, she saw what he was doing and she saw me gently stop him and tell him not to touch my body that way. She was frustrated as she believes parents should control children until they can control themselves, so she told him that pinching me made me sad. In response, I told her that it didn’t make me sad at all. It hurt and I wanted him to stop. My emotional read of the situation had nothing to do with the harm he was causing to my body and THAT is what I needed him to consider. I’m sure she was aghast when I offered him a hug.

When we point to our emotions in addressing a child’s behavior, it is a form of control. If our kids are lashing out, something is going wrong and our first step has to be to help them figure it out. Once that connection is made, we can circle back around as needed to let them know what their impact was without creating a situation where they have to console us. If we want to teach our children empathy, we have to SHOW them empathy first.

Kids can say some really hurtful things to us like “I don’t like you” and “You embarrass me,” which can trigger lots of difficult emotions in us. It’s important to stop and understand that something is happening inside our child that is uncomfortable and may be difficult to express. A friend of mine uses a phrase that might help in these situations. She extends a judgment free invitation to “say more.” Just those two words and then she listens. You could try that next time your child says something that hurts you hard as you engage in emotion coaching to help your child process what it is they’re feeling.

I’ll close with another video. In it, Dr. Kennedy dives deeper into the message behind her earlier meme. She answers several questions, including ones you likely have. Give it a thorough listen and see if anything hits home: