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In this article, you’ll learn about:
- Generational codependency.
- The important influence parents have in shaping their young adult children’s relationship patterns.
- How parents can break the cycle of codependency that has been passed down through generations.
This article is for parents of teens and young adult children. Some of it may apply to parenting younger children. Additional information about how parents can break the codependent cycle with their children can be found in this article: Parenting When You’re Codependent: How to Break the Cycle.
What is generational codependency?
Codependency is a learned behavior that often develops within the family system. It stems from unhealthy patterns of relating and can manifest as an excessive reliance on others for validation, a diminished sense of self, and an intense need to please and take care of others at the expense of one’s own well-being. When parents exhibit codependent behaviors, their children observe and internalize these patterns, perpetuating the cycle.
Generational patterns of codependency can be deeply ingrained, as they are often rooted in unresolved traumas, emotional wounds, and dysfunctional coping mechanisms passed down through your family. These patterns can manifest in various forms, such as over-caretaking, lack of boundaries, low self-esteem, and difficulty expressing needs and emotions.
Parents’ role in breaking generational patterns of codependency
Parents have a strong influence on shaping their children’s relationship patterns and self-worth. They can help break the cycle of codependency and empower their children with the tools they need to cultivate healthy, interdependent relationships. By recognizing the codependent patterns within ourselves and our families, we can take intentional steps to foster independence, self-worth, and emotional well-being in our young adult children.
Breaking the cycle of generational codependency
Encourage your teens and young adult children to explore their identities, interests, and values. Give them opportunities to try new things and identify their own priorities and goals. Remember, your children are not extensions of you; they are unique and separate people.
Practice tolerance and acceptance, knowing that your children will likely have beliefs, ideas, values, and goals that differ from your own. Show an interest in who they’re becoming and what they’re interested in. Doing so will help them feel safe and supported, which will allow them to grow into emotionally grounded and capable adults with a strong sense of who they are and what’s important to them.
Have age-appropriate expectations and foster independence
Recognize the developmental stage and capabilities of your young adult children. Most young adults don’t need or want to be told what to do. They need you to be a guide rather than an authority.
As your young adult children mature, adjust your expectations and allow them the freedom to make independent choices. Encourage them to set realistic goals and support them in their journey. By fostering their autonomy, you empower them to become self-reliant individuals.
Fight the urge to do things for them or give unsolicited advice. Provide opportunities for them to make decisions, solve problems, and take responsibility for their actions. Gradually give them more independence, even if it means allowing them to experience failure and learn from their mistakes.
Teach healthy boundaries
Show your children that it’s okay to say “no” and prioritize their own needs. Avoid overstepping their boundaries and respect their personal space, emotions, and decisions.
If your young adult is open to learning more, get them a copy of The Better Boundaries Workbook or a similar book to help them practice boundary skills.
Acknowledge their emotions
It’s common for teens and young adults to have strong emotions and struggle to understand and manage them. When they express their emotions, acknowledge their feelings without judgment. By acknowledging and normalizing their feelings you act as a safe sounding board, which can encourage young people to be curious about their feelings and talk about them rather than repressing or acting out.
Teach them coping skills
Teach your children healthy ways to manage stress and intense emotions, such as deep breathing and mindfulness techniques, exercise, journaling, or talking to supportive friends. Show them apps and online tools to help them practice coping strategies. And talk with (not lecture) them about the pitfalls of too much time on social media and how they might develop other ways to cope with loneliness, anxiety, boredom, and so forth.
Work on your own codependency recovery
Reflect on your own upbringing and work to break unhealthy patterns passed down through generations. Seek therapy or support to address your unresolved traumas and create a nurturing environment that promotes healing and growth. There are many resources available to support your recovery: support groups, 12-step programs (Codependents Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc.), books (such as Codependent No More), podcasts (such as Adult Child), and apps (such as Today’s Hope).
Detach with Love
If you’ve been enabling your adult child, it’s time to detach with love. Detaching with love means letting go of the need to control or fix your young adult children’s problems. Offer support and guidance, but don’t push your agenda or micromanage their lives. Allow them to learn and grow through their own experiences. Trust in their ability to handle difficult situations, while letting them know that you’re there when or if they want your help.
Take responsibility for your parenting mistakes
Model accountability by apologizing when you make mistakes as a parent. Acknowledge any unintentional harmful behaviors and demonstrate the importance of taking responsibility. This fosters a culture of mutual respect and teaches your young adults about accountability.
I can’t emphasize this point enough. In my work with adult children who’ve cut ties with a parent, their parent’s failure to apologize and acknowledge their mistakes is usually a significant factor in the adult child’s decision to end the relationship.
Encourage your young adults to prioritize their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Teach them to listen to their own needs, engage in activities they enjoy, and seek balance in their lives.
In addition, prioritize your own self-care. Taking care of yourself will help you be a better parent—one that’s physically healthy, patient, grounded, and pleasant to be around. Prioritizing self-care also models good habits and shows your child that self-care isn’t selfish.
Model healthy relationships
Talk to your adult children about healthy relationship dynamics. Let them see how you communicate openly, resolve conflicts constructively, and set healthy boundaries.
Encourage your children to build a network of diverse relationships, including friendships, mentors, and romantic partners. Emphasize the importance of healthy, balanced relationships based on mutual respect, trust, and reciprocity.
Don’t avoid conflict
Conflict is a natural part of relationships and an opportunity to solve problems and grow as an individual. If your child is doing something that’s bothering you, bring it up to your child in a kind and respectful manner. Listen to their perspective and feelings and try to give them the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming the worst. Be mindful to show them the same respect that you’d use with your boss or mentor.
Likewise, when your adult child has an issue with them, avoid responding defensively. Listen attentively and work hard to understand their needs and concerns. By embracing conflict, you teach them valuable relationship and communication skills.
Normalize asking for help
As parents, we sometimes think we must have all the answers and be strong for our children. However, it’s essential to recognize the importance of seeking support and asking for help when needed. Breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and normalizing mental health care is vital for our well-being and that of our young adults.
By reaching out to therapists, counselors, or support groups, we demonstrate to our children that seeking help is a sign of strength and a valuable form of self-care. If you think your young adult might benefit from therapy or another form of support, offer to help them navigate available resources and reinforce that their mental health matters and that they deserve support in navigating life’s challenges.
Breaking the cycle of codependency is a powerful gift we can give to our young adult children. When we’re intentional about our parenting approach, we can empower our young adults to cultivate independence, healthy relationships, and a strong sense of self. Remember, change takes time, and progress may come in small steps. Stay the course and be gentle with yourself!
©2023 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
Learn more about how to end codependent relationships
Navigating the Codependency Maze provides concrete exercises to help you manage anxiety, detach with love, break through denial, practice healthy communication, and end codependent thinking. It was written by Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping people overcome codependency, people-pleasing, and perfectionism and find their way back to themselves. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.