People get confused by the term codependent, or coaddict. I thought today I’d address codependence/coaddiction to see if it clears it up. If someone you love is engaging in an unhealthy behavior such as drug abuse, gambling, excessive shopping, etc., it is very noble to want to help. As relational beings we are called to help others when they are struggling. Coaddiction occurs when the attempts to help are misguided.
Let’s say Jane has a gambling addiction. Her brother, John, decides he wants to help her stop. At first he has a good conversation with her, and she agrees she should quit. However, Jane is unable to quit. John then threatens to stop talking to her if she does not stop gambling. She quits for a week and then goes back to it. He doesn’t stop talking to her. John consistently sets boundaries he does not keep. Jane comes to John and says she cannot afford her rent this month. He gives her $500 to cover the rent with the stipulation that she does not gamble that month. She gambles anyhow, and the next month tells him she again can’t cover her rent. She apologizes for gambling and promises never to do it again. John believes she is sincere. John continues to give Jane money for her necessities like food, clothing and shelter. Meanwhile, John’s wife is becoming very upset and wants to stop giving Jane money. John tells his wife, “If I don’t give her money then she can’t buy food for her kids.” John’s whole existence and self-worth becomes tied up in keeping his sister above water. John rationalizes this by telling himself that he is not giving her money with which to gamble.
John has become codependent. His self-value has become entrenched with helping Jane. If he is helping her then he can assume he is a good, loving brother. He is allowing his own marriage and financial security to suffer in order to take care of someone else who is not truly trying to get better. On top of that, John is really hindering his sister’s ability to beat her gambling addiction, albeit unintentionally. He pays her rent and buys her food, which frees up money for her to use at the casino. He fears she would use it at the casino and then not be able to pay her rent. That usually is not what happens, but if it does, she will finally feel the consequences of her addiction, and seek to get better.
If your teen is using drugs, or has some other unhealthy behavior, think carefully about the ways you are unintentionally enabling the behavior. If you recognize your enabling behavior, but are afraid to stop, then you have developed codependence. A great website to check out is coda.org (Codependents Anonymous). Therapy is also a good tool for overcoming codependence/coaddiction.
It is scary to stop “helping” your own child work through an addiction or struggle. However, we’ve all heard the old adage about how someone might not get better until they reach rock bottom. After doing therapy with addicts for a number of years, I believe there is truth to that statement. If you are trying to help your teenager avoid harsh consequences for their behaviors, you are prolonging when they hit rock bottom. Let your child experience natural consequences for their choices; the sooner you do so, the sooner they can realize they need help.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT