We can all imagine the effects on children if they are abused or have to deal with addicted parents. It guarantees that the subsequent adult will experience a tough time. There are many people who have had to struggle through life due to the irresponsibility of the people who decided to bring them into the world, for whatever reason. There is an old saying “every child deserves a parent but not every parent deserves a child”. This is very true in many cases.
However, codependency does not always need such extreme forces to form and start a pattern that, if left untreated, will shape the way sufferers see themselves and the world. Many of my clients who are clear codependents grew up in obviously “ok” homes with loving “ok” parents who subjected them to an “ok ” parenting style. This begs the obvious question how and why this could happen? The answer lies in the fact that abuse might not have been present but emotional neglect was.
Children up to a certain age are extremely sensitive to everything around them and especially the interaction and connection with their caregivers. This is where they gain the impetus to develop. It is parent’s ultimate responsibility to create an environment that fosters growth. Even with a parenting style that is mostly effective, small events can have an effect on the way a child sees the connection. Let me give you a few examples:
- A child runs to her father to show him something she made at school. He says he is busy and he will look later. The child is left disappointed and feeling her father doesn’t really care. This is not the first time.
- A child comes home from school with a report card that doesn’t contain straight A’s. His parents say there is obviously room for improvement and they would expect that next time. There is no praise given for what was done.
- A child spills her drink at the dinner table and her mother calls her an idiot and tells her she always does this.
- A child is conditioned to believe that she must see her parents needs as more important than her own, leading her to subdue her needs to the extent that other’s needs become more important. She learns to sacrifice these as a control measure to gain affection and validation.
- A child is being bullied at school but his parents are too busy to see the obvious signs. The child copes alone.
Very small examples of neglect and ones that occur every day in homes everywhere and some would say they are nothing. However, these are real examples from clients who have vividly described how they felt about themselves after such events. They also happened frequently instilling gradually a certain core belief. A core belief of not being good enough or not being loved. It also tells them that they need to constantly do more to be validated and accepted. Taken into adulthood, this pattern continues and facilitates abuse from others in relationships, including the classic narcissist, codependent scenario.
As these events happen to children, they develop their own defence mechanisms to cope and survive. They avoid, subdue needs and feelings, obligate themselves and feel guilt and shame because they indeed have needs at all. These subtle interactions with their caregivers are devastating for the child but often go unnoticed by the parents. These mechanisms develop to become part of the child’s personality and the way it presents itself to the world and others. They are also the basis for the critical “protector” voices that drive thinking and behaviour.
They become a trusted companion and children and indeed adults come to see them as guides and advisors. The same patterns played out in childhood continue and are difficult to break as they become systemic and habitual. As adults, we are very reluctant to let go of these mechanisms for that would mean facing change and a new life. Consequently, we nurture them and project our emotional safety onto others, hoping to solve an issue that started many years before.
It is my observation that most codependents grew up in houses where they were encouraged to be caretakers, to subdue their own needs or taught that whatever they did was not up to scratch. This is where the shame and guilt often start, key elements of codependency. If you add into the mix the typical neglectful, inconsistent, often punitive parenting style that codependents are often subjected to, then the recipe is complete. I have recognised that many parents of codependents were also brought up in codependent households themselves and are often with a certain “type” of person. There is often a combination of an overwhelmed mother and an emotionally distant “breadwinner” father who felt that providing financially was his only job. He took no interest in raising the children and was often called upon to punish when needed. Many of these emotionally distant men were either alcoholics or philanderers leaving the secure base that is essential for children to grow, fragile.
It is never too late to deal with codependency issues and come through. In effect, one can say that the baggage you have been asked to carry for others (your parents) can be dropped. You are not responsible for your conditioning, but you are 100 percent responsible for changing it.