Those who follow this blog might remember the article titled “Childhood of a Narcissist”. I have mentioned what kind of family dynamic could turn a child into a self-centered, arrogant emotional manipulator.
In this article, we will talk about the family dynamics of the selfless, devoted codependents whom we could call the opposite of narcissists in many ways.
Family Systems that Pave the Way for Codependency
1. If there’s an addict in the family:
If there’s someone in the family who’s addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling etc. the rest of the family members may feel the need to adapt to the situation. They think that this adaptation is needed in order to maintain the family unity. This adaptation usually shows its self in the form of hiding the addiction from the outside world and keeping it within the household. For instance; the mother hasn’t lost her entire fortune because of gambling, she simply made some wrong financial moves.
No matter how badly the addiction is affecting the whole family, the situation is either ignored or its damages are minimized. The addiction is kept as a family secret and everyone pretends like everything is alright. The physical, emotional and financial burden of an addiction is either denied or its effects get minimized. For example, let’s imagine a child who has an alcoholic father and a codependent mother. The child’s mother can give them a message that reads “actually, your father loves you a lot, he’s just too sick to be able to show it.” In that case, the child can be minimizing the their father’s neglect (which is caused by his addiction) while seeing their attentive mother as a hero. But in a scenario like this, the child is actually abused not only by the father but also the mother. When this child grows up, they may be able to realize how their father’s addiction affected them while being unable to accept how their selfless and heroic mother influences them.
Children who grow up in such families end up being unable to trust their own perceptions. Because children want to trust their families. They tend to believe that their families always want the best for them and that they’re being honest with them. Then they find themselves in a dilemma when their own perceptions and their family members’ actions clash.
2. If there’s someone in the family who’s mentally ill or in need of others’ care:
Some families may include an elderly person or a disabled individual who needs others’ help. In that case, the attitude and behavior of the rest of the family members are shaped by this person’s situation. Their needs become the top priority and most of the time, the needs and desires of the other family members (including the children’s) are of secondary importance. In fact, if the child tries to express their needs and desires, they can be reminded of the existence of the disabled person, which can cause the child to feel ashamed for having wishes. The child can be expected to help the disabled person. In this way, the family does not only neglect the child’s own needs but also give them the message that someone else’s needs are more important than theirs. In this way, they reverse the roles by giving too much responsibility to a child.
A family member with mental illnesses can also affect a child negatively. This illness can either be something hard to cure like a personality disorder, or something like depression which can relatively get better with correct treatment. If the child was raised by a mentally ill parent (especially during their first development phase), it’s likely to affect them badly. For instance, an untreated depressed person may end up neglecting their child because of their lack of energy or motivation, find it hard to meet the child’s physical and emotional expectations or make the child feel responsible or guilty by reflecting all their negativity.
3. If there’s a narcissist or another emotional manipulator in the family:
If there is a narcissist or another manipulator in the family, it is likely for the children to develop codependent traits as a defense mechanism. The self-centered and inconsiderate attitude of an emotional manipulator can cause to see even their own children as extensions of them rather than separate individuals. In family dynamics like this, children exist only to meet the narcissist’s expectations of them. Their own wishes are always of secondary importance. They are forced to fit in the narcissist’s idea of a family by pretending to be perfect and facing emotional abuse when they fail. Just like they are not allowed to be themselves, they’re also responsible with maintaining the family’s good reputation. They constantly worry about what their neighbors or strangers would say. Therefore, they’re always forced to wear a mask of perfection and try to be nice, likeable, polite and compatible under any and every circumstance.
But of course not all children who grow up with an emotional manipulator end up being codependent. Some children pick up the manipulator’s ways, some children develop other defense mechanism. And some of them start developing codependent traits in an attempt to survive their toxic family life.
4. If there’s an extremely authoritative or closed family system:
It’s very difficult for children who grow up in oppressive families to become an authentic individual in their own right. They’re either “ruled” by the strict rules of the authoritative family members or try to fit in their closed-minded family or society. The “closed” part in here may be interpreted as too conservative or too leftist. In any case, extremist families and societies force children to obey certain rules which makes it impossible for them to be themselves. Because of that, they never find their true selves and their freedom. Overwhelmed by rules; they give up their own identities and try to be what their family or society expects them to be. However, they usually cannot succeed no matter how hard they try. The standards of this type of families can be so high that they continuously make the child feel “not good enough”, or “not worthy enough”.
Besides, both the authoritative and the narcissistic families disregard children’s boundaries, the line between the adult and the child is often blurred. “After all it’s just a kid,” they say while disrespecting, ignoring or mocking the child’s privacy. Because of that, those children grow up to be people who do not know or cannot protect their own boundaries, which makes them very vulnerable against manipulation.
5. If there’s a neglecting family system:
In some cases, the family does not include an addict, a narcissist, a disabled or elderly person in need of care. The family dynamic may not be very authoritative or restricting either. Children’s basic needs such as food, shelter and education can be met perfectly. At the first glance no one notices there’s something wrong with the family system, or it can even be an exemplary family.
Yet still the child can feel incompetent, worthless and enraged; they can still work too hard to please others. Because the family members can be neglecting the child’s emotional needs while only focusing on their physical needs.
Some parents can be workaholic instead of alcoholic. They try to fill the void not with a substance but with an addiction the society finds more acceptable; overworking. Constantly busy or constantly tired parents cannot spend enough time with their children.
In such families, there can be a lack of hierarchy and the adult-child roles may be reversed. So the parents who are supposed to offer unconditional love and guidance can expect the child to offer them unconditional love, respect etc. instead. Much like the narcissistic families do, the children are used for the family’s prestige and the parents’ emotional well-being.
Emotional neglect is something the addicted families, narcissistic families and disabled families can also include but sometimes there isn’t any other issue such as alcoholism. That can be even more confusing for the child. Because emotional neglect is invisible by nature and therefore, quite sly.
Emotionally neglected children do not suffer because something unfortunate had happened to them, they suffer because they aren’t given the love, attention and guidance they want and deserve. The problem is, because they cannot comprehend what’s missing; they find themselves feeling problematic, guilty and even evil because they don’t fit in and cannot be like “everyone else”.
There isn’t much of an emotional bond between the emotionally neglected child and the adult. The parents may look quite compassionate from the outside but most of the time, the bond they have with the child is surface-level. Besides, there’s a lack of healthy communication. The problems within the family remain within the family. In fact, the problems are almost never discussed clearly even with the family members. Instead of talking it out, the existence of problems is denied or its effects are minimized.
It’s possible to say that these parents also emotionally neglected when they were children.
If you’ve noticed, the common thing all these families have is the fact they abuse or neglect their children in one way or another.
The messages these children get can be read as:
***Do not speak about the problems in the family!
***Do not speak about your own problems, be strong!
***It’s forbidden to express your emotions, emotions are weakness!
***Be good, polite and compatible. It’s for our prestige!
***Work, work, work! Search for perfection!
***You don’t need to be yourself, it is enough for you to be the person I want you to be. Or else you’ll get no love and compassion!
As a result, all children need to be loved unconditionally, be allowed to express their feelings and opinions, have their physical and emotional needs met and be guided. Families who fail to do one or more of these things can harm their children greatly. They can grow up to be people who feel like they don’t belong anywhere in the world and are useful only as long as they can meet others’ expectations of them.
If you believe yourself to be codependent, you probably didn’t get enough true love, attention and guidance form your parents or those who were responsible of you. You should know that it isn’t your fault and that you shouldn’t feel incomplete or problematic. Codependency can be painful but once you start seeing the deep-seated toxicity in yourself or your family, things will be resolved slowly but surely.
You can also find the articles on https://medium.com/@narsistsiz:
Good Therapy. “Codependency”. Access 21 November, 2019. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/codependency#:~:text=Codependency%20is%20usually%20rooted%20in,are%20not%20worth%20attending%20to.
Psychcentral, Sharon Martin. “The Link Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Codependency”. Access 28 December, 2017. https://blogs.psychcentral.com/imperfect/2017/12/the-link-between-childhood-emotional-neglect-and-codependency/.
My other articles on the subject: