Lanablackmoor has a degree in psychology and personal experience with the topic.
The Fine Line Between Caring and Codependence
The first thing that comes to mind when we hear the term “codependent” is usually an abusive boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. However, this is not always the case. Believe it or not, most codependent relationships are between a parent and child, not romantic partners. In a codependent parent-child relationship, the lines between protective and obsessive, engaged and over-involved are often blurred beyond recognition. The caregiver/care-receiver nature of a parent-child relationship makes codependency particularly difficult to detect.
Here are a few signs to help you figure out whether your parent-child relationship is codependent.
1. The Codependent Parent Has a Victim Mentality
We all face obstacles in life, but the codependent parent believes that the other people in their life, particularly their children, owe them penance for the wrongs committed against them. Often this manifests in guilt-tripping behavior intended to garner sympathy from the child for negative experiences the parent has been through, with the end goal of altering the child’s behavior in a way that will somehow set things right.
This is where the problems begin. Rather than dealing with the traumas and difficulties in their own life through healthy means such as self-reflection and therapy, the codependent parent latches onto a child and demands compensation.
Compensation can take many forms. Many times a codependent parent will live vicariously through a child. For example, a mother who got pregnant in her teen years may demand repayment of the burden she faced by putting expectations on her daughter to seize advantages in life that she missed out on. A codependent father may demand that his son excel in sports to make up for his own lack of athleticism in childhood. If the child shows signs of taking their own path in life, the parent will use guilt to manipulate them into compliance.
Rather than dealing with the traumas and difficulties in their own life, the codependent parent latches onto a child and demands compensation.
2. The Codependent Parent Is Never Wrong
In normal relationships, one party is right some of the time but never all of the time. In a codependent parent-child relationship, the parent is always right. Even when the child is an adult, the parent will refuse to approach an argument or even a simple discussion with openness to the possibility of being wrong. Instead, they will seek to impose their own view of the situation and “correct” the adult child, as opposed to engaging in a discussion where neither party is presumed right by default.
So rather than listening to the child's feelings and problems and learning about the child's personality and way of being in the world, every situation becomes a threat to the parent's authority.
Even if it becomes apparent that the codependent parent is wrong, they will not apologize—or, if they do, it will come off as forced or insincere. The codependent parent requires absolute dominance over the child, and any admission of wrongdoing on their part would be a sign of weakness and an invitation to challenge their dominance.
In a codependent parent-child relationship, the parent is always right.
3. The Codependent Parent Is Overly Emotional
People sometimes end up crying, yelling, and giving others the silent treatment, but the codependent parent has refined these acts into an art form. When they feel that they are losing control of a situation or the upper hand in an argument, they will resort to crying, screaming, and other acts of intimidation to restore the balance in their favor. If called out on this manipulation tactic, the codependent parent will often accuse the child of being callous or insensitive, or feign ignorance altogether.
If the child cries or expresses hurt or anger, the codependent parent may get unusually angry and claim that the display, no matter how genuine, is insincere and being used to manipulate when, in reality, they are upset that their tactic is being turned around on them.
The codependent parent has refined crying, yelling, temper tantrums, and silent treatments into an art form.
4. The Codependent Parent Never Listens
Many children of codependent parents complain that speaking with their parent is like “talking to a brick wall.” In fact, one doesn’t speak with a codependent parent as much as to them. No matter how valid the argument, the codependent parent will not be moved in their position. Instead, even when presented with irrefutable facts that would cause a normal person to reconsider their position, the codependent parent will either refute the facts or move onto a different argument without addressing the point being made.
Speaking with a codependent parent is like “talking to a brick wall.”
5. The Codependent Parent Parrots Words and Phrases
Instead of listening to the child's feelings, a codependent parent will parrot, mirror, or mimic them. If the child claims that the parent is hurting their feelings, for example, the codependent parent will, perhaps seconds or even hours later, return with, “You’re hurting my feelings!” Whatever concern the child expresses, the codependent parent will find a way to turn it around and regurgitate it as their own, thus reversing the defensive and offensive roles in the conversation. If called out on this behavior, the codependent parent will ignore it, become angry, or act bewildered and confused.
The codependent parent will find a way to appropriate the child's feelings and present them as their own, thus reversing the defensive and offensive roles in the conversation.
6. The Codependent Parent Has Mood Swings
Drastic mood swings can happen over a couple of minutes or a couple of days, but the codependent parent has the ability to rapidly shift from one mood to another. This is especially true when their manipulative tactics have succeeded in garnering the child’s acquiescence. The codependent parent may be yelling and screaming one moment, but once they get their way, they may be exuberant. Conversely, they may sulk in an effort to rebuff any guilt as a result of their power play.
For example, a mother screaming at her son for not calling often enough may eventually get him to give in and promise to call more. Once she attains what she wants, in an effort to keep her victory and her role as the victim, she may say something like, “No, never mind. I don’t want you to call. You’ll just be doing it because you have to.” Then, the son will not only have to call more, but reassure her that this is what he truly wants to do of his own free will, thus absolving her from any responsibility and guilt.
The codependent parent will rapidly shift from one mood to another in order to avoid responsibility and guilt.
7. The Codependent Parent Must Maintain Control at All Costs
Control is the end goal of all codependent parents. Most codependent parents expect a level of devotion and love from their children that is unhealthy and unnatural, intended to make up for that which they lack in other relationships. Often the codependent parent wishes to garner from their child the love and/or attention they failed to receive from their own parents. This creates a dramatic role reversal of the parent-child relationship and turns it into a vampiric dynamic rather than a mutually beneficial one.
Whatever it is that the codependent parent seeks to gain by controlling the adult child, when it becomes clear that they won’t succeed, a meltdown will often ensue. If the parent controls with guilt by appearing frail and playing the victim card, they may become suddenly venomous and aggressive when the adult child refuses to give them what they want. Conversely, a codependent parent who controls through subtle manipulation and passive-aggression may suddenly become dominant and plainspoken.
It is important to remember that these dramatic shifts in the face of lost control are not a mood swing or an “episode.” Instead, the codependent parent is revealing their true nature as opposed to the façade they must maintain in order to keep things going their way. Once there is no hope of getting their way, this façade will become useless and be easily stripped away.
Often the codependent parent wishes to garner from their child the love and/or attention they failed to receive from their own parents.
8. The Codependent Parent Manipulates – Subtly
The most effective form of manipulation is the kind that you can never be called out for directly. Examples include the silent treatment, passive aggressive comments, denial of wrongdoing and projection, among others. The codependent parent will leave the child in a state of confusion, wondering who really is “the bad guy.”
Often, the parents will be genuinely unaware of their own manipulation. Many codependent parents truly believe that they are doing what’s in their child’s best interest and execute some of the most unsettling control tactics and manipulative power plays with simultaneous mastery and obliviousness. In fact, when called out on their manipulation with specific examples, the codependent parent will often be genuinely and deeply hurt and bewildered.
In fact, the codependent parent does not usually manipulate because they want to; they manipulate because they have to. They simply don’t know any other way to communicate with the adult child who is beyond their direct control. Thus, they will manipulate with finances, emotion, guilt, and any other tool at their disposal to maintain the imbalance of the codependent relationship.
Examples of things codependent parents will use to subtly maintain power:
the silent treatment,
withholding (of money, time, or affection),
denial of wrongdoing,
and projection, among others.
So You Have a Codependent Parent... What Should You Do?
This is not an exhaustive list, but it does cover the basic signs and symptoms of codependency to watch out for. In my experience with my own codependent parent, many of these are hard to recognize but, on closer inspection, they deviate significantly from the norms of a healthy parent-child relationship.
There is no single, quick, or easy way to deal with a codependent parent. It depends on the individuals as well as the severity of the codependency within the relationship. In some cases, the only thing the adult child can do is sever ties with the codependent parent completely. In others, carefully imposed boundaries, discussion, and family therapy can be used to maintain a healthy relationship for both parties.
Many codependent parents truly believe that they are doing what’s in their child’s best interest.
How to Navigate the Holidays With a Codependent Parent
- Getting Through the Holidays with a Codependent or Narcissistic Parent
Emotional abuse is always difficult, but it is especially hard to spend the holidays with a codependent or narcissistic parent.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Your Two Cents
Anon on August 21, 2020:
My mother is definitely this. I severe ties completely, then, she turns up out of the blue... And everthing goes back to how it was. I feel trapped. I will never get away from her. I feel like death is easier because she's so emotionally abusive and it hurts me to the core. It's soul destroying. She's supposed to be my mum, however, she never has been, it's as if she's the child and I'm the mother. I can't do this anymore. No one can relate to me, at least no one I know. And I feel like a fool but, if I severe ties again.. She won't get it. Everything is my fault. She is incapable of taking responsibility. It feels like I'm alive just for her. I'm alive for her, not myself. She makes me feel like a worthless piece of shit
Michael Kenny on August 08, 2020:
life to me was like a full thick fog in the wilderness, having the clutches of my mother having full control and getting very nasty about it. only tonight my mother wanting to know where my youngest brother of 30, who wanting a weekend with his girlfriend and believing he should be there with her, attending to her every need with me and other siblings. both my parents are elderly and told her we have to move on in life but believing they have to come first, not us not having any say what we do in life. there is so much conflict and hurt from my mother and whatever she has done is beyond disrepair resulting in huge resentment and bitterness, one thing I lacked from my mother is love and attention and to try to get that love somewhere has made me into a lost soul. my life is ruined with the rest of my eldest siblings, there is no case on what they have done but still there is physical abuse and the courts put that down as punishment. all my life I be trying to explain to my mother about the wrongs she has conflicted onto us but believing she has showing no wrongs on her behalf, my self esteem and confidence has always been low and now the rug has finally been pulled from underneath her, her control and overbearing manner is starting to wane off when my brother will be leaving to move home next month, my sister afterwards and myself, her option will be the hard way ( never see any of us again) or the easy way (supporting them but showing their respect on us when we get on with life) I can't see my mother letting go and leading to the hard way, but I know she will turn bitter and nasty at the end and we all have to pray for her if she will ever find it in her heart because she goes.
Kat on April 06, 2020:
My mother and I are close. She is my best friend and she lives with my boyfriend and I. We have been taking care of most finances since she has major health problems and doesn't work as much. She was a single mother of two in her early twenties. She kicked my father out when I was 2 because he was a criminal and addict. She came to America when she was 14 to escape the communist war in Vietnam. She was the youngest in a well off family and found out she was adopted at age 11. She has never really had a true friend or hasn't dated since I can remember. Her stories of her life have mostly revolved around trauma/hardships she has endured. She is naturally pessimistic, and does not trust people. She is very judgmental of others and vocal about it. She can be difficult and demanding to deal with. I know for a fact that she is a codependent mother, I've known since I was a teen that the relationship my mother and I have is far from normal- Not abusive but not normal... I have always felt a sense of guilt & resentment because she chose to be alone, guarded, playing the victim mentality... Some of the most trying and difficult times in my life she has added to the stress of it. Don't get me wrong she is a good mother, she tried the best she could. I respect and cherish her, but as I grow older I realize I have work of my own to do. I cannot continue to expect her to change. I can only be responsible for my own emotional intelligence and protect it by creating boundaries and not allowing her to affect me by doing the work I need to make myself happier and set goals that I desire. We've had many ups in downs in our family like all others, but the older I get the more I start to focus on my desires and what I want.-not because it's what my mother expects or demands. I think it's possible to cut the apron strings even if you aren't the one wearing it...I can still have her in my life just on my terms.
Grace on March 30, 2020:
Change the word 'co-dependent' to 'cluster B' (as in the diagnostic statistical manual - DSM of personality disorders) and you have it exactly correct! My BPD (Borderline Personality Disordered) mother and NPD/BPD (Narcissistic and Borderline) father-in-law both EXACTLY fit ALL of these points. Lastly, I disagree with the statement that "they manipulate because they have to" as that reinforces that they are victims. We all have choices and accept the consequences of those choices. I recommend going 'no contact' as they refuse change and you cannot change them. Save your own life and let go! They already made their choice and you do not have to live with it!!
Anonymous on January 27, 2020:
I'm dealing with a mother who's codependent behavior borderlines tyranny and psychopathy who threw me out of the house just for calling her out on her victim complex, is a compulsive liar when it comes to money, throws my father who is completely independent and divorced from her and will only let me back in if I agree to a list of terms that are complete BS in my eyes. I am my own man not her slave
Dyingperson on January 01, 2020:
I am also struggling with a codependent mother.
My dad does absolutely nothing. I told my parents that an old guy asked for my number and I had a hard time saying no and he keeps texting. My mother told me to reply saying not to text me and my father sat and said nothing. I feel like my dad doesn’t do his role as a father and so all the burden for parenting has been on my mother which probably results in codependency. My father is absolutely out of the picture, there is no dependency whatsoever other than financial support of which everyone needs to bow down to him for what an amazing “chairman” and achieved person he is. My mom doesn’t get the credit I dont think which is some part what she wanted I think.