LEARN IN ORDER TO TEACH
I was recently working with a couple who have concerns about their 13 year old daughter. We talked about what codependency looks like in a teen and how to deal with it. I told them I would look for books on recovery from codependency for teens and found nothing...hence this blogpost and maybe later a book.
Dealing with teens can be very difficult as they are in a transitional stage from childhood into adulthood. They have been bombarded with hormones and often deal with their changing bodies with discomfort. Acne, braces, periods, crazy sex drive, nighttime emissions are all new things that can cause insecurities and mood changes.
When my son was going through this time I just felt that he had started to hate me. He was withdrawn and irritable. I didn't realize at the time that this was a temporary condition. It was very difficult for both of us and I made many mistakes along with many strides in terms of parenting a teen.
The best preparation for helping a teen with codependency issues is teaching them from birth a few essential concepts which will prevent difficulties later on. I always tell my clients with children that their children are substantially cooked by age 11 or 12 maybe earlier. After 13 our approach as parents needs to differ considerably. Mandates and direct advice are likely to be argued or rebelled against which is a normal and healthy reaction from a teen who needs to individuate from parents as they cross the divide into adulthood. It is important to share and commiserate rather than to "parent" the teen. Ask them questions and draw them into possible solutions for problems they are having. This enables them to feel more comfortable thinking for themselves. Reading books together or watching educational videos with discussion after is important as well. There are many dramatic shows and movies that are also thought provoking which can foster a more adult relationship between parent and teen.
Keeping it simple in terms of interpersonal health is also important to teach our very young children. I will illustrate a few of those here.
Teaching young ones healthy boundaries is essential to interpersonal health. Establishing rules of respect in the house such as always knocking and getting permission to enter a room. Parents as well as children must respect this boundary. Teaching our children that psychological abuse, violence and bullying are unacceptable is essential. This means parents must refrain from violence to their children and each other as well. Respect grows out of healthy boundaries. Fear does not foster respect. It fosters resentment in the developing teen. We all have a right to be listened to and heard. Teaching our children active empathetic listening is helpful for the whole family. Many parents believe all couple conflicts must be done in private, away from the children. I disagree. It is helpful for children to witness conflict resolution so that they can take that skill into adulthood instead of becoming conflict averse or avoidant. We all have rights as humans...these rights extend into our family as well. Respectful communication must be insisted upon but parents need to hone this skill before they can teach it to their children.
FOCUSING ON SELF RATHER THAN OTHER
A prime symptom of codependency is the tendency to identify with the other rather than self. My favorite oft repeated joke is "two codependents have sex and one says to the other, well it was good for you, how was it for me?" The method for teaching healthy respect of self to our children is to teach them to acknowledge how they are feeling, to identify feelings and that their feelings are important. As a Buddhist I teach that all feelings must be acknowledged and then transformed into compassion for self and other. If these skills are not taught early the child becomes fused or enmeshed with others rather than individuated.
THE KINDNESS DILEMMA
The boundary between compassion and codependency is very murky. A rule of thumb to teach our children is that if kindness to another causes self harm....its codependent. If kindness causes no self harm it is interdependent which is the healthy state of kindness. This is a very nuanced distinction. It demands that both personal boundaries and the ability to focus on self rather than other must be internalized. It demands that parents must learn and adopt the same principles they are teaching to their children.
The bitter truth about helping our teens is that often it is too late and we have to let them learn their lessons the hard way. Many codependent children will become addicted in one form or another. I have found that while helping many addicts recover, the underlying issues are codependency. Recovery is certainly possible but prevention is a much better form of recovery.
Prevention is an uphill battle because our culture is full of the mistakes that cause codependency. Racism, violence, male privilege, social inequities, authoritarianism are all cultural symptoms that lead to codependency. Religions often teach women to put up with abuse for the sake of the children. Men who are abused by wives are seen as weak if they intervene or leave the relationship. Girls are taught that assertiveness must be hidden through manipulation and underhandedness hence the mean girl syndrome. I could go on and on but that is a possible discussion for further blogs or even a book.
If you are concerned for you teen the first step is get help for any codependency or addiction issues you may personally have. Codependents anonymous and other 12 step programs are very helpful. Have discussions with your teen when watching programs that show symptoms of codependency. It is important to remember that the most common codependent diad is to hook up with a narcissist. Please see my blog here about the Relationship between Codependency and Narcissism.
Avoid avoidance.....start communication in the family with compassion, calm, and respect. Interrupt boundary violations with veto power...what you say no to. A common phrase I teach is "I can't allow you to treat me this way".
I wish you hope as you progress on this journey of healing and growth. It is a bumpy messy road which promises much reward. Until then.....
I welcome comments, questions and suggestions.