Protective Parents: The Relationship Between Codependency and Addiction

As children, we are taught and told to respect and love our parents, most times without question. It makes sense: they provide our basic needs in the ways of food, shelter, and general well-being—and they take care of us before we are able to take care of ourselves. But what happens when a parent oversteps their caretaking boundaries?

Codependency in parent-child relationships, while fairly common, creates some of the most skewed and difficult relationships to navigate. Generally speaking, the term “codependent” describes a series of subtly manipulative and emotionally volatile traits in one person that can cause pain, shame, anguish, and resentment in another. When a parent is codependent on their child, they place an unhealthy need on him or her for their own emotional, psychological, and social support—usually due to the lack of such defining systems in the parent’s own upbringing. Because of the naturally-occurring caretaker/care-receiver roles, this type of harmful relationship can be hard to detect—and consequently can lead to a difficult road for the child.

Often, children of codependent parents find themselves engaging in reckless or harmful behavior in order to cope with not only their interpersonal relationships, but their own emotional voids left as a result from having been under the umbrella of this type of relational abuse. As these children grow into teenagers, young adults, and men and women, struggles with mental health, personality disorders, and substance abuse become increasingly common and severe—and can often lead to a cycle of addiction and enabling if the cycle is not broken.

Recognizing a codependent parental relationship

While there is some debate over the exact onset of parental codependent behaviors, it is worth noting that within one study, nearly all mothers who were classified as codependent also suffered from other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and personality disorders. These parents, while not intending to hurt their child, impose upon them the emotional, mental, and psychological needs they themselves had that went unmet when they were young. Codependent parents often display several of the following traits or behaviors toward their children:

  • Suffocating and/or overprotective behaviors mismatched with their child’s age
  • Personal low self-esteem and destructive behaviors, including addiction or addictive tendencies—even to one’s own child
  • An extreme and exaggerated feeling of responsibility for those around them
  • Outbursts of rage or excessive emotion when they perceive rejection, disobedience, or lack of control

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Suffering in silence

I don’t want to hurt Mommy—next time I’m sad, I will just keep quiet. Daddy gets really frustrated with me when I have an opinion that’s different from his—I’ll keep them to myself. Maybe I really am wrong about my own thoughts and feelings. It’s better to stay silent than get in trouble.

Maybe this sounds familiar: as a child or young person, when you would express your feelings, thoughts, or ideas about a particular subject or decision, it either went completely unheard or was dismissed as “wrong” or “silly” by a parent. You might have sensed hurt, anger, or sadness in your parent, and associated that with expressing yourself honestly. Because the need for parental support and love is so strong in any child, conceding to their wishes or emotions was always the easier choice—but may have been a contributing factor to your difficulties with personal emotional hardships, substance abuse, and relationships in the future.

For most children, recognizing that their parents’ behavior is destructive is almost impossible, blinded by their innate desire to repair a healthy bond that wasn’t there to begin with. They are lead to believe that their self-worth is only derived from making their parent happy and doing what he or she asks out of fear of consequence, or hurting the parent. These children grow and develop thinking that their own needs and desires are meant to be dismissed or untrustworthy, resulting in low self-esteem, depression, and a lack of control over their own actions and impulses.

Wanting to be seen, wanting to be heard

That a link between codependency and addiction exists has been crystal clear for years, but is difficult and complex to unravel because it sometimes dates back to infancy. When we feel “felt” as children, when our emotions are considered and valued, it actually expands our dopamine system and releases endorphins. The more this happens, the more stable our neurobiology becomes—and the more stable we become as chemically-healthy adults.

On the flip side, when children are excessively shut down, reprimanded, or dismissed, their dopamine system contracts, unable to develop and grow with personal relationships. Because this system is our “feel-good” center and is lacking in vital ways, we begin to seek out other reckless activities and addictions that feed us those essential chemicals such as alcoholism, substance abuse, sex addiction, or gambling in excess. Using an act or substance feels “right,” as it produces regulation in our production of dopamine and stability in our opiate centers.

Once an addiction or substance abuse begins, it can further the cycle of codependency: the parent feels responsible for their child’s behavior and actions, and the addicted, now-grown child may be reliant on his or her parent to survive, unable to emotionally, mentally, or physically handle the difficulties that life throws at them. The burden of the addiction cannot be laid solely at the parents’ feet—remember, they most likely are unaware and suffering from their own trauma—but regardless of the cause, it is important that the addictive cycle be broken. Fortunately, with treatment and therapy, that is completely possible, and a healthier, more independent you is on the horizon.

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Restoration and re-training

Treatment is the best way to ensure that you stop your addiction in its tracks before it goes any further—and it’s also the way towards becoming the truest version of yourself you have to offer. Outdoor and nature engagement is one of the many effective types of therapy Alta Mira has available, with manifold benefits for recovery and mental health. Yoga and equine therapy are also great choices for the mind, body, and spirit; engaging deeply with yourself and/or connecting with an animal can help the growth and re-stabilization of an underdeveloped dopamine center.

Knowing the “why” to your addiction might be the hardest question to answer, but it is helpful to know that others also struggle—and that you yourself are not a deeply flawed person. It is important not to blame your parents for their shortcomings or missteps as a codependent parent, but recognizing that as a trigger to your addiction can greatly aid you as you take the measures to become the healthiest person you can be.


Understanding where your addiction stems from can be complex and difficult—but it can be done with assessment, treatment, therapy, and continued healthy practices. Alta Mira offers individualized treatment plans so you are able to heal in the best way for you. If you know someone who suffers from addiction or substance abuse, contact us today.