Understanding Codependency: For Families with Teenagers Struggling with Addiction

When a teenager in the family is grappling with addiction, it can trigger a complex set of dynamics within the family unit. One of these dynamics is codependency, which can have a profound impact on both the addicted individual and the family as a whole. In this blog, we will delve into what codependency is, how it manifests in families with an addicted teenager, and explore ways to heal from it.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one family member, often a parent, becomes excessively preoccupied with the addicted individual’s well-being. This preoccupation can lead to behaviors and attitudes that enable the addiction, even when these actions are not in the best interest of the addicted individual. Codependent family members may feel an overwhelming need to take care of the addict, even to the detriment of their own emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

These dynamics are a normal part of addiction, and despite sounding harmful from the outside, when you have a relative struggling with addiction, they are normal behavior patterns.

3 ways Codependency Can Show Up:

  1. Enabling: Codependent family members often engage in enabling behaviors. They might provide financial support, cover up the addicted teenager’s mistakes, or make excuses for their actions, believing that these actions are helping the teenager. In reality, these actions perpetuate the addiction and hinder the teenager from taking responsibility for their recovery.

Example: A codependent mother may repeatedly give her addicted son money, thinking it will help him. However, this financial support enables his addiction and prevents him from facing the consequences of his actions.

2. Denial: Codependent family members, despite knowing their teen is using substances, will feel such intense pain from their teen’s addiction that they will deny the addictive behavior is happening. They may ignore hidden drug paraphernalia, refuse to confront the addict, and act as though nothing is wrong rather than face the emotional pain of admitting that substance use is happening.

Example: A father may see the teen using substances one moment before dinner and then, when confronted by his wife, deny that the teen was doing anything. 

3. Emotional over-identification: This is when a family member begins to be ruled by the emotions of the addicted child. Even if the child isn’t in crisis, the family members’ emotions are ruled by the perceived “okayness” of the child. There becomes an emotional dependency that is overattached and unhealthy. They may experience dramatic emotional highs and lows in response to the teenager’s addiction. This dependency causes the parent to cater to the child’s needs rather than set boundaries that may upset the child because their emotional okayness is attached to the teens’ ever-changing feelings. 

Example: A parent may be so preoccupied with their child that they’re unable to think about anything else in their life. 

Healing as a family:

Recognizing and addressing codependency is essential for both the addicted teenager’s recovery and the well-being of the family. Often in recovery, we will see that the family is suffering just as much as the teen. For the teen to heal, there needs to be trust that the family will not sabotage the improvement by subtly encouraging substance use. 

Here are some steps to heal from codependency:

  • Family therapy or counseling can provide a safe space to explore codependency issues and develop healthier coping strategies as a family. We recommend CRAFT courses: https://www.reachoutforchange.com/
  • Get clear on your boundaries, and stick to them. Set clear boundaries with the addicted teenager to maintain a balance between support and enabling. Define what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable.An example of such a boundary would be that parents won’t provide financial support for the teenager’s addiction and will only offer help for treatment and recovery.
  • Family members should prioritize their own emotional and physical well-being. Engage in activities that promote self-care and emotional resilience. Read more about parent burnout here: https://www.anteloperecovery.com/parent-burnout/
  • Encourage Treatment. Support the teenager in seeking treatment for their addiction. Encourage them to attend therapy, rehab, or support groups.

Addiction is known as a family disease. Recognizing the signs of codependency, understanding how it shows up, and taking steps to heal from it can empower the family to support the addicted teenager’s recovery while safeguarding their own well-being. By addressing codependency, families can set their teen up for long-term recovery.