What You'll Learn
- The difference between codependency and interdependence
- What codependency looked like in our childhood
- Impact of codependency on our partners and relationships
- How codependency impacts our parenting
- How can we be more interdependent
- Ways to raise interdependent children
Codependent habits and behaviours can prevent us from having meaningful relationships with our children and partners. We all want our children to grow up to be independent, but should that really be the goal? And is there ever a point in childhood when codependency is an acceptable norm? Psychotherapist Sian Crossley is here today to help us understand the complexities of codependency and codependent relationships and why we should all be striving for interdependence.
What is codependence?
Young children rely on you to cope and soothe and this is developmentally appropriate, but we should allow for them to have opportunities to manage their own emotions, and moments of discomfort provide that.
Children need co-regulation. Appropriately helping children manage their emotions makes it less likely they will become codependent adults. “But a child could be self-consciously responding to an invitation to codependency from a parent,” Psychotherapist Sian Crossley warns. If a parent subconsciously looks to a child for reassurance, the child might pick up on that. “Codependency is seeking something from our children we’re missing,” Crossley says.
Codependency is seeking something from our children we’re missing.
It’s a reliance on someone else to regulate how you’re feeling—to make you feel better or manage your feelings. Crossley describes codependence as the feeling of “I can’t do this on my own.”
What is interdependence?
Interdependence is what we should all be striving for. It’s a healthy space between codependence and independence.
Codepency leans toward a porous boundary system where physical and emotional boundaries aren’t held very strong and can go all the way to enmeshment where boundaries don’t exist.
But independent people tend to hold their boundaries really firm to the point commitment can be scary, and it’s difficult to get to know them.
Interdependence is a healthy balance. It’s being open and able to get to know people without losing your sense of self. “When you’ve done that kind of healing work it frees up energy to focus on yourself,” Sian Crossley tells us. “You’re able to rely on yourself rather than having to depend on someone else to get through the day.”
For healthy interdependent relationships we also need to respect and accept other people’s boundaries wherever they choose to place them.
What did codependence in our own childhood look like?
If we were raised steeped in codependency we don’t know any other way. There is this expectation of living in tandem. “When we experience codependency in childhood it erodes our sense of self. There isn’t really space for the self to develop at all. So identity becomes the role of saving people or pleasing people,” Crossley says. And this is something that can present in our relationship with our children as well. That’s how the cycle can repeat itself. Recognizing this can help us break the cycle.
How does codependency impact our partners and relationships?
When we consider relationships with our partners, something to consider is that boundaries can look different from culture to culture and even family to family. My husband is from Beinin, West Africa. The area he grew up in is very community focused. Their ideas about how involved extended family members should be is different than what’s usually expected in North America. Complete independence is not required there wherein North America independence is the gold standard. The threat here is codependency. But if we’re all striving toward interdependence, then we’re just looking for healthy boundaries which can help balance different cultural ideas about codependency and independence.
Boundaries can look different from culture to culture and even family to family.
“Interdependent relationships are about wanting to, choosing to spend time with the other person rather than needing to,” Crossley says. “I’m fine on my own but this person makes everything better.” “You should be able to be in a relationship without feeling like you’re losing any part of yourself. It’s being able to kind of connect in a way that’s authentic enough for you to feel okay.”
How can we be more interdependent?
If motherhood is our whole identity, we’re setting up ourselves for codependency. If we think of our identity like a pie, and motherhood is that whole pie, we’re completely absorbed in our family and there is nothing else. That’s a dynamic that easily sets up codependent behaviours and patterns. And if motherhood is your whole role that plays into the mother wound as well.
But if we think of motherhood as a piece of the pie, among other pieces like friend, spouse, therapist, photographer, daughter, sister, whatever pieces make us who we are, that’s a more healthy balance. And that can set up interdependence. “You referenced a career—that therapist piece—but this can totally be achieved as a stay at home moms as well,” Crossley points out. What is something you loved that you’ve stopped for a while? Or what creative thing have you thought about picking up? These can be pieces of that pie.
Motherhood is a piece of our identity but it doesn’t have to be—and probably shouldn’t be—our whole identity. But there may be times in motherhood where it is the whole piece of the pie. That time span is going to be different for every family, but somewhere along the lines of infancy to about 6 months. That’s not self-sacrificing or permanent. That’s a period in time that will pass, and when it’s a necessary passing phase, it’s not going to play into the mother's wound.
It’s important to remember doing things for yourself isn’t selfish. Our needs are needs.
Our needs are needs.
But codependent patterns and behaviours aren’t broken overnight. Don’t be ashamed if you notice codependent tendencies. Instead, just check in with yourself and ask yourself what you really need. And what’s the best way to meet that need? Coming from a conscious place of “I have this need that should be met” is very different from having the subconscious need you’re unaware of. It’s the subconscious needs that lead to codependent behaviours.
You’re a whole, complete person not just a mom. Embrace that for yourself and if you have a partner encourage it for them.
How does codependency impact our parenting?
How we talk to children can wire them for codependency or interdependence. Statements like “It makes me sad when you do this,” teaches the kid to value other people’s feelings over their own and also that they are responsible for other people’s feelings.
We mentioned subconscious needs earlier. When we aren’t aware of our needs this can lead to patterns of validation or reassurance seeking from the child—we’re seeking out our psychological and emotional needs via our child. And this is where we can set up or continue a cycle, because it normalizes codependent behaviours for the child.
How do we raise interdependent children?
Crossley says, “Children are constantly picking up on what we do versus what we say.” Recognize your children’s boundaries and show your children that you have your own interest. That doesn’t mean you’re going to do what the kid wants, but make sure they know they are heard. Since kids pay more attention to what we do than what we say, model boundaries in all directions—by both having your own boundaries and respecting the boundaries of the people your family interacts with— and create a dialogue around that. She repeats, “Make sure you're still existing as a person not just as a mom.” Doing things for yourself is the best way to teach your kids interdependence.
Make sure you're still existing as a person not just as a mom.
It can also be helpful to communicate that relationships can benefit everyone and there can be a sense of balance. We need to remember and teach that everyone’s feelings matter while still looking for ways to get our own needs met. Your personal interests have to still exist and you need to still exist as a person, “But also giving permission to children as they get older to experience their own interests,” Crossley advises us.
Breaking cycles of codependent patterns can be really hard. Especially if we were raised with these patterns, it’s all we know.
If you need more help with this, check out Bethany’s podcast episode on Understanding the Mother Wound.