What is Codependency in Families?

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC
12/22/2023

What is Codependency?

Codependency is a relationship style defined by an imbalance of providing needs and meeting needs. Codependent people maintain or enable toxic behaviors that are harmful to everyone in the relationship. Because those bonds are unhealthy and harmful, codependency is often referred to as “relationship addiction”. 

Codependency was originally coined to define relationships that enabled addiction, but now we understand that it applies to any relationship. It’s a learned behavior that is passed down through generational trauma, and it often begins to develop within the home.

What Does Codependency in Families Look Like?

Codependency can develop within families. A codependent family dynamic is one of unhealthy, dysfunctional closeness. Instead of a close relationship being something celebrated, it becomes a compulsive need and a source of anxiety.

Boundaries are virtually non-existent in codependent families. Instead of parents allowing their children to find and create their own identity, codependent parents will do what they can to assert their own identity over their children’s.

Codependent vs Caring

Children are dependent on their parent’s care. A typical five year old cannot regulate their emotions let alone put food on the table. It’s up to parents to take care of and nurture their children.

Codependent parents have a compulsive anxiety-driven focus on their relationship with their children. Instead of letting a child develop on their own, a codependent parenting style pushes children into a mold. Codependent parenting isn’t caring—it’s controlling.

A close up of a grown up holding a child's hand

Codependent Parenting

Codependent families are created by codependent parents. These parents often exert excessive control over their children and are attached beyond what is considered healthy. 

Codependent parents rely on their children in order to create a sense of self. This manifests itself in several ways including:

Over-Involvement 

Going to every soccer game shows support for your child, but there is a level of involvement that goes too far. Arguing with teachers, doing their homework, or not allowing them alone time with friends are all examples of over-involvement.

Helicopter parenting leads to children who are underdeveloped, anxious, and have little confidence. 

Inappropriate Caretaking 

As children get older it will be developmentally appropriate for them to take on their responsibilities. A 17 year old should be allowed to choose their classes and an 8 year old should be allowed to dress themselves. Codependent parents will take away any choice by doing it for them.

Incorrect Shouldering of Responsibilities 

Codependent parents often take the emotional responsibility of their children onto themselves. For example, if a child has a bad day and comes home from school crying, the parent feels responsible for this and will turn the blame, as well as the focus, on themselves.

Asserting Themselves as the Victim

It’s common for codependent parents to place the blame for unresolved trauma or problems onto their children. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, they blame others for what they’ve done.

Getting Help as A Parent

Being a parent isn’t easy. Mental health professionals can help parents get the tools they need to take on the responsibilities of raising kids, maintaining healthy relationships, as well as work through any unresolved trauma.

Inner Balance Counseling offers general mental health counseling. The way you parent your children can be negatively affected by past experiences. Seek help in identifying and addressing negative ways you parent.

Characteristics of A Codependent Family

Families who experience a codependent attachment style share certain similarities. These characteristics can be found in almost every codependent family. 

Enmeshment

Enmeshment is a characteristic of codependent friendships as well as codependent families. 

As a family continues living codependently, the individuality of each family member begins to fade. Identity is now dependent on the family and individual boundaries no longer exist. There is no way for family members to define themselves outside of the context of their family.

a black and white photo of a evanescing person over a railroad track

Parentification

Because there are few boundaries between parent and child, children will be asked to take responsibilities that are often inappropriate for their age.

Because children in codependent families are forced to take on the identity their parents have made for them, they often take on responsibilities that should be the parents’. This process is called parentification.

Parentification is seen most clearly in older siblings who are asked to take on responsibilities such as:

  • Caring for siblings because the parent is unavailable
  • Assuming household responsibilities like cleaning and cooking
  • Paying bills
  • Providing emotional support for a parent
  • Acting as a mediator for parents and other family members
  • Acting like a counselor for a parent

This issue isn’t exclusive to codependent families. It’s healthy and helpful for an older sibling to want to help out or babysit their siblings every once in a while. However, parentification can cause relational trauma and take away from a child’s developmental years.

Codependent Family Roles

Within a codependent family, there are often roles that family members will assume. This is especially noticeable in cases where addiction is present. The five roles of a codependent family help identify cases of codependency as well as give a framework to talk about it.

The Hero

Like most of the five roles, the hero role is usually taken on by a child. The hero, despite their dysfunctional family, excels in school or their activities. They can keep their composure, have good grades, and shine in extracurriculars.

What children in the hero role are trying to do is keep any unwanted attention off their family. They are embarrassed by their family so they try extra hard to do well to ensure no one will notice the dysfunction.

The Mascot

The mascot is the family member who tries to hide the family’s embarrassment, fear, guilt, and other feelings through comedy. They are the class clown or family jester, but they can often hurt other family members with their jokes. 

On the outside, they seem happy and funny, but in reality, their comedy is a coping mechanism that’s used to avoid hard family issues

A woman with mascara running holding a piece of paper to her mouth with a smily face drawn on. She is a metaphor for the mascot roll of a codependent family

The Scapegoat

Scapegoats are family members who act out to divert attention away from family issues. They may act recklessly or rebelliously to get the attention they need. They feel shame, grief, and anxiety over their family’s situation and turn to extreme ways to avoid the issues.

The Lost Child

Some kids will shut down. This is similar to the trauma freezing response. The lost child will often dissociate and choose not to discuss the issues. They are the silent family member who won’t get in anyone's way.

The issue with the lost child role is that they are often neglected. The family's attention is elsewhere and while they’re being ignored, they internalize their negative feelings.

The Caretaker

The role of caretaker is usually taken on by a parent, especially in cases of substance abuse. Those in the caretaking role will do everything in their power to avoid the present conflict. They enable unhealthy behaviors and try to save face by trying to keep everyone happy.

The caretaker finds their self-worth in supporting the needs of their family, but they have a distorted view of what their family needs. Instead of facing family issues they divert, enable, and avoid conflict altogether. 

five roles of a codependent family: the hero, the mascot. the scapegoat, the lost child, the caretaker

Finding Help as A Codependent Family

If you find yourself in a codependent family, there is help available. 

Unhealthy relationships can cause several mental health issues. Luckily, there are support groups and family therapy options available. Whether you’re a parent or a child, you can benefit from seeking counseling.

Inner Balance Counseling welcomes a wide array of people looking to feel better. We believe everyone deserves to feel safe and that they belong. Request a consultation and learn how Inner Balance can help you feel better.

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC
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