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. Children 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.