Every week in my counseling office, I sit across the room from at least one Orange County teenager who is struggling with codependency. They do not usually realize this is their struggle. Their parents call me because their child is feeling a lot of anxiety, or has been having a hard time in their friendships. Sometimes the teen has been feeling depressed, or is acting out. Many, many times the call comes because parents are fed up with their child’s association with a certain group of kids, and this has caused some big arguments in the house.
This is a common enough problem that if you are my client and you are reading this, you might think I am telling your story. Well, in a sense I might be; this is true because codependency in teenagers is very common, and very challenging to work with.
First of all, what is codependency, and what does it mean when a teenager is codependent? Codependent behavior is when you cannot let go of someone who needs to make a change in their life. You feel valued by “helping” someone who actually does not want help. Let me explain this better with the most common scenario I see. I work with a lot of teenage girls who are dating a boy that uses/experiments with drugs. The girl hates this and tells her boyfriend to stop using. The boyfriend makes all kinds of promises, and the girl feels important. The girl believes the relationship is saving the boyfriend from spiraling downward into harder, more addictive drugs. She knows it is not good for her to date someone like this, but she feels value because she thinks he loves her enough to stop. She says things to me such as, “I can’t break-up with him because then he’d really fall apart.” (Just so we’re clear, I used the example of the girl being codependent, but boys are often codependent too.)
Friendships can have the same elements of codependency as dating relationships. A great number of teens I work with know they ought to make better friends. However, they often hold two beliefs preventing this. The first one is that the “better” people would not want to befriend them. The second (the codependent belief) is that their friends would do worse things if they were not around to keep them in check.
So, now that you know what codependency is, and what it can look like in teenagers, when is it time to end a relationship?
1. When your teen comes home upset on a regular basis. Adolescents are often moody, so I am referring to extra moody.
2. When you notice your teenager is clinging to a friend who only calls them back when nobody else is available.
3. If your teenager has been giving a lot of money to a friend.
4. If your teen is consistently asking you how to help a certain person, and you’re not sure it’s a good idea.
5. If your teen begins to lie in order to cover for a friend.
6. I’m sorry that I even have to write this one down, but it comes up more than you’d think. If your teenager starts asking you to lie to a friend’s parents to cover for that friend.
7. If you find out your teenager has been picking up their friend from unusual situations.
8. If your teen’s friends have spent the night and you didn’t even know they were coming over (This doesn’t mean your kid is codependent, it’s just a caution flag.)
9. If your teen is dating someone and all their friends stop coming around.
10. If you have a strong feeling of dislike for the person your teen is dating, and their friends agree with you.
Codependency in teenagers is common, but destructive. It raises levels of anxiety for your teen, and it can leave them feeling down. As a parent, this is very painful to watch. Codependency is difficult, but can be helped. Often this takes a parent being really firm, or it takes some good counseling.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT