Codependents Need To Learn To Feel

Developmental trauma is the root cause of codependency. By trauma, I mean that a codependent in childhood sought but never attained connection with a caregiver. Instead, they were maybe caregivers themselves for addicted, abusive or neglectful parents who understood very little about parenting. However, it doesn’t need to be as drastic as that scenario to foster codependency. The ‘do as I say’ parenting style or lack of understanding of how children develop will also do the trick.

Codependency, in my opinion starts to appear very early in a child’s life and I believe the age 0 to 3 are crucial in this. The first six months of a child’s life is an essential phase for bonding with caregivers. Needs are met by parents when a baby cries and if those needs are met consistently, the sleeping cycle that babies have will continue happily. This is a stressful time for new parents and mistakes are made easily but the importance of this phase cannot be underestimated. Children, until the age of 3 to 4, then look for a ‘sense of autonomy’ as they start to explore the world a little. Here, parents must create and maintain a safe environment, be fully observant and help the child regulate emotions, use positive reinforcement and positive discipline. This is termed as the ‘codependent’ stage for obvious reasons. If this stage is negotiated well, then the next developmental stage can be tackled effectively on the road to independence.

Many parents do not understand the way a child develops and especially the ‘toddler’ stage is often wholly misunderstood. Normal behaviour is often punished punitively and often seen as ‘rebellious’ or ‘pushing boundaries’. Some children are even medicated to ‘calm’ them down. The ‘terrible twos’ is often handled badly when in reality, a child is often overwhelmed with its new sense of autonomy and is looking again for dependent connection with caregivers. This is often denied them as parents seek ‘control’ over their children. I have often read in horror some websites offering advice on dealing with this phase. Children who are not safely negotiated through the ‘codependent’ phase will often stay in this phase emotionally, starting a quest for connection in other relationships. Some parents find it difficult to let go and allow their children to progress to autonomy and subsequent independence.

One of the consequences of the above is the lack of effective emotional regulation. Childrenn are often taught that emotions are bad and are taught to repress them. Many parenting styles advocate a child ‘being seen and not heard’. Many parents were also subjected to this and so continue along the same lines. The message is that children’s emotions are best kept under and not released. Sometimes children decide to do this for themselves when they sense danger or they are a designated caregiver for parents or siblings. Here, the needs of others are more important. In this case, children will often dissociate from the moment and subdue feelings.

When I work with codependents, they are often in a place where emotional regulation is still a major issue. The emotions attached to shame, guilt, anger and fear are expressing themselves in inappropriate ways. Many will be in, or have had, relationships with emotionally distant or abusive individuals, mirroring aspects of their childhood. Most are on an endless quest for connection with somebody or something, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Some are eternal caregivers to someone or a group of people, draining what energy they have.

In all of this, they place their own emotional needs aside, concentrating on meeting the needs of others. Emotions are surpressed and sometimes expressed in an outburst of rage or sadness, continuing the cycle. I often hear that children were told not to express emotions, were punished and felt shame when they did. Emotions are bad, so they are bad. A major part of therapy with codependents is allowing them to feel appropriate emotions and that it is ok to do so. For some, this is a new concept but can be an exciting part of recovery.

6 Thoughts

  1. From all that I have read the early years are critical for a healthy life

    They do not guarantee wellbeing but without attachment life will be problematic

    Love has always been a mystery to me

    I understand love of my kids and grandkids but with a mate I have no clue how to pick a loyal one

    As I age, I am fine being single

    Any insight

    1. It is those early connections that teach us how relationships work, especially romantic ones. The fact that you find it hard to find and understand love means those early connections were probably dysfunctional. Sometimes it is hard to let go of these early impressions.

      1. It is hard to understand, letting go of these early impressions has occurred during my healing.

        Letting go of the dysfunction does not help understanding love.

        Does not point to a qualified candidate so far

  2. Thanks Marty, this post is spot on!

    I’ve seen over and over again in my work with survivors of domestic violence that children raised with some sort of neglect and without a voice, will continue unconsciously trying to heal from their pain and yet continue to recreate in some form or another their original drama. They seem to be caught in an unconscious drama of pain, that repeats through the generations.

    One way I have found to begin to break that cycle of pain is through a 12 step program called ACA or Adult Children of Alcoholics or other dysfunctional families.

  3. This is interesting.
    I made my first friend when I was 4 years old. Carol was 4 1/2 and on the first day we met she told me she was going to be a nurse and marry a doctor and have 3 children.
    Her father never thought our family was “good enough”, because we didn’t know what we were going to do in life, which proved my parents were “no good” at parenting.
    That my parents allowed us to go around climbing trees and walking in the forest and skating on the pond and riding our bicycles and … by ourselves!!! … was further proof what undesireables we were.
    The local school was broken into and C’s father had the police so convinced my brother was the “gang leader” that the police drove more than 30 minutes out to our cottage on the lake and spoke with my mother. My mother was perpelexed as we left on the last day of school and spent our summers at the cottage. My brother had been nowhere near the school when it was broken into.
    In the end it was Carol’s brother who headed the delinquents who broke into the school, so nothing more was ever said about that!

    Carol’s brother failed first year engineering, but then found an older woman to finance him a few years later, got his engineering degree (as told to do since childhood) and then dumped the wife.
    A good son. He did as he was told and became an engineer.
    Both daughters became nurses, but the older sister “rebelled” and married a hospital porter, after having spent some years out west and having become a OR nurse.

    When the parents died the older sister bought the home that the father had put all his time, and love, into making bigger and bigger and bigger and …
    L lived there with her husband while my friend lived with her doctor husband and 3 children in some backwater place, being the “wife of a doctor”.
    Carol did have one show of spirit in her teens by dating a football player and becoming engaged to a parapallegic fellow for a while, admitting she would never marry him.

    No matter what has befallen me in life I have always been so very grateful my parents allowed us to explore our environment by climbing trees and hiking and choosing our own paths …
    Could we have become doctors and engineers … undoubtedly.
    It’s always struck me as very odd that sister bought the house that meant so much to her father. She was actually the one who moved away, only to return to that very house she fought so hard to get away from.

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