What is Co-Dependency?

Article by Joyce McLeod Henley

Co-dependency is a pattern of behaviors and beliefs learned by children of dysfunctional families while they are growing up. As a child in a dysfunctional family, this can be helpful to the family and enable it to survive.

However, it is very harmful the child, whom we will call “The Family Hero”.

I have thrown some new words at you, and some clarification is needed. First of all, what is a dysfunctional family? It can be defined in many ways. For this purpose a dysfunctional family consists of one or both parents who have issues that interfere with their functioning as parents and partners.

Some of these issues might be alcoholism or other drug addictions, or mental disorders like bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia. So how does this affect the children? At least one of the children steps up to the plate and assumes some of the duties normally performed by a parent. This child becomes "The Family Hero”.

For example, if mom is too drunk to fix dinner the hero child takes care of it. After dinner, the other kids may need help with their homework, to be told to do their homework, to have a permission slip signed, or need someone to talk to about being bullied at school. Again, the hero child takes care of it. The more that the parent under functions, the more the hero child over functions. The other parent may need a confidante about the problems with the dysfunctional parent. Again the hero child assumes that role. Thus, some of the tasks get done, and the family survives.

How does taking on all of this adult responsibility affect the hero child?

From the outside they look great. Mature beyond their years, they are responsible, want to do what is right, anticipate the needs of others and do whatever they can to please the adults in their lives. Inside, though, they are an endless sea of pain. They feel overwhelmed by multiple tasks beyond their maturity level. Since performing like an adult is impossible for children, they feel chronically inadequate. They become so busy anticipating the needs of others, that they lose their sense of self and identity in the process. They work harder and harder to keep everybody and everything under control. Since this is also impossible, the harder they work the angrier and more frustrated they feel.

Of course, they do not express it, because expressing a negative feeling causes an explosion in an addicted family. Thus the hero suffers through hideous family scenes, and then everyone later behaves as it nothing happened. This is crazy-making and makes people question their judgment. Since the hero child often becomes a confidante for the other parent, the boundaries in their relationships become all mixed up.

All of these behaviors become automatic in the hero and persist into adulthood, where they cause all sorts of problems. The family hero believes that he is responsible for everybody and everything. He believes that he knows and can fix what is wrong with people. He believes that the needs of others are more important than his, and that he must help everybody who asks. His boundaries in adult relationships do not exist. Under stress, the hero over functions desperately, until he is exhausted.

The next article, "How Does Codependency Affect Adults", I'll explain how these automatic behaviors and beliefs affect the adult family hero who we will call "The Co-dependent".


Top Ten Signs That CoDependency is Sabotaging Your Relationships

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