Dependence tends to have negative connotations—we may be addicted to sugar, the internet or gambling. Other times we are dependent on people or relationships, in which case the line between positive and negative is no longer easy to draw.
When we are young, it is natural to be dependent on the adults around us; we cannot survive without them. However, as we grow older, we become autonomous and our relationships with the people who gave us our wings reach a new level, that of equal partners.
Yet there are many cases where parents continue to treat their adult children as if they are still young and deeply dependent on their parental intervention and skills. It is these parents who feel they should be consulted before any decision is taken, mothers and fathers who are preoccupied with, and even dependent on, the role of “first fiddle.”
Objectively speaking, we could say that parents have a special status, whatever the age of their offspring. No one can take their place or underestimate their importance. At the same time, however, no one should stand in the way of the healthy, natural development of the relationship between parents and children, which is in direct conflict with the tendency to overprotect the young, to deprive them of the opportunities they need to develop.
Overprotection of children is a selfish act on the part of parents.
“Children who are not allowed to explore, to take responsibility for their actions and their consequences, to develop socially and emotionally, to discover themselves by forming their own thinking, their own system of values, are the insecure adults of the future, those who live through and for others (…) and those who ultimately fear life,” points out psychotherapist Ursula Sandner in an article explaining why overprotection of children is a selfish act on the part of parents.
Such parents feel an acute need to be indispensable to their children, define themselves exclusively through them even as they enter adulthood, and are likely to cultivate a codependent relationship.
Overprotection of children
The codependent parent is defined as one who develops an unhealthy attachment to the child, who attempts to exert total control over their existence, to think and act for them, while attributing to them passive, helpless behaviour, both in childhood and beyond.
Parental codependency is betrayed by a combination of characteristics:
Difficulty in setting and accepting boundaries
In their relationship with their young children, parents in this category tend to rule out discipline as a way of bringing them up, lest they be rejected for applying well-defined rules. In their relationship with their adult children, there is a tendency to become overly involved in problems for which they have not been asked for guidance or help. Parents who are in the habit of ignoring boundaries are those who do not want to keep physical and emotional distance from their children, even when they are no longer young, claiming the need for space and privacy.
Meeting children’s needs in ways that are disproportionate to their age
This situation occurs when the parent prefers to do tasks or actions for the child that the young person could do on their own, either to save the child effort or to reaffirm the importance of the parental role and the idea that nothing can be done without the parent’s direct input. This behaviour is present in early childhood, when the parent ignores the fact that the child’s level of development allows him or her to cope on his or her own in certain circumstances, and in adulthood, when the mother or father discourages the child’s independence, whether in trivial matters such as preparing a meal or booking a plane ticket, or in more important matters relating to decision-making, expressing individuality, choosing a partner or a job.
Manipulating children’s emotions
Young children are said to be masters of manipulation, but the reverse is also true. Adults also have their questionable ways of getting their children (minors or adults) to behave as they please, and manipulating emotions is one of them. To get what they want, some parents often resort to emotional blackmail, making their children feel guilty if they don’t listen to their elders. From the classic accusation: “I made sacrifices so you could have everything you need,” to the ultimate expression of disappointment: “I didn’t expect this from you,” they go through a whole arsenal of guilt-tripping to gain compliance.
Adopting a “dogmatic” behaviour
“Parents are always right.” “Do not contradict your parents.” “Parents are the only ones who know what is good for the child.” These are the statements that illustrate the ideology of codependent parents, guided by the belief that any disagreement by the child is an act of rebellion that questions their importance and authority. For the adult child raised by such parents, there is rarely any middle ground. As they mature, they will either try to break free completely from the influence of the family that demands absolute obedience, taking the necessary risks, or they will accept the role of submission without testing their own mechanisms of dealing with reality.
Even if they seem infallible, parents can also have self-esteem problems, and feel overwhelmed, powerless or inadequately prepared to carry out their plans. Sometimes, past failures or disappointments can make them feel like a lost cause. In this situation it will be easy for them to see in their relationship with their children valuable opportunities to achieve what they have failed to achieve on their own, thus linking their self-esteem to their children’s achievements.
In one way or another, most adults dream of their children having an exemplary path in life and feed off their academic or professional success. In the case of codependent parents, however, parental satisfaction is an expression of their own wants and needs, centred on themselves rather than on what their children want, know or can do.
Maintaining the child’s financial dependence on the parents
The financial contribution of parents to the well-being of adult children is a culturally nuanced issue. In some parts of the world, family involvement in supplementing the adult budget is greater than in others. However, it could be said that the current trend favours children becoming financially independent from their parents once they are of age and/or have completed their studies.
However, this outcome is not advantageous for codependent parents. They may use material rewards to maintain their children’s dependence on them or to obtain a desired behaviour, which means that the “treats” that are at risk when things do not go as anticipated are actually intended to win the children’s affection and, by extension, their obedience. In this case, the willingness to receive help comes at a price that is difficult to negotiate.
The desire to be in control
Natural in the early years of a child’s life, when they are completely dependent on those around them, a parent’s desire to maintain strict control over them becomes harmful as time goes on. Each stage of a child’s development represents a new set of skills and abilities that prepares them for life, and the control that parents seek only inhibits the child’s right to develop into an autonomous person, able to make decisions, take responsibility for the consequences of their actions and plan their own future.
In adulthood, the need for parental control takes different forms. Parents may be overly intrusive, always present in their children’s daily lives; they may insist on demanding information about situations that do not concern them, even when the other party is unwilling to reveal certain details; they may make unexpected and unannounced visits; they may make decisions for their children and then confront them with a fait accompli; or they may try to take on burdens that do not belong to them, which has the effect of infantilising their adult children.
In all these cases, it is easy to understand why we meet people who, at the age of 30 or 50, are at the emotional age of a child and who betray a feeling of powerlessness at various levels of their lives, “induced by their own parents, who preferred to have their children as close to them as possible, as dependent on them as possible, as easy to control as possible.”
The need for change
Once children leave home, many parents experience the “empty nest syndrome,” feeling a sense of worthlessness, excessive worry about their child’s welfare and the risk of alienation. Faced with this unflattering reality, parents refuse to “cut the cord” and try to maintain the old family dynamic of the child’s helplessness and the elders’ omnipotence.
In order for parents to take a meaningful step towards changing the patterns of behaviour that affect their relationship with their children, both sides need to be aware of the need for change. Such an awareness may arise from a critical situation based on direct confrontation in which the child’s needs, expectations, and demands are made clear to the parent; it may come after repeated conflict and tension; or it may be the result of an inability to establish a functional relationship that reveals the need for a reconfiguration of the family dynamic.
Whatever the situation, without the children’s willingness to assert themselves while being compassionate towards their parents, parents will find it difficult to change. They can start by rediscovering their own needs and taking care of them, independently of the parental role that is no longer a priority: reconstruct their identity, rebuild their relationship with their partner, engage in leisure activities, and develop hobbies.
By taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, parents can, over time, adapt to the new reality. It takes detachment to understand and accept that parental responsibilities don’t disappear, but are recalibrated, becoming less prominent. They may no longer be responsible for preparing food, doing the laundry or taking their children to the doctor, but they can certainly find new ways of being useful to their adult children. However, in order to understand their needs, they must learn to listen to them, take their wishes into account and respect the boundaries they set.
Mastering their own lives
On the other hand, children can also work on improving their relationship with their parents and with themselves. Let’s not forget that authoritarian, control-based parenting creates people with low self-esteem, a tendency to self-criticism and a lack of confidence in their own strengths.
For such children, the process of separating from the parent who serves as their guide and conscience can be difficult, but also liberating. The effort to take control of their own lives will not be minimal. They must be prepared to face constant retaliation, which may take the form of reproaches, accusations or victimisation. They have to set limits and respect above all themselves, clearly express their needs, strive for their own financial independence and determine their willingness to be in the presence of their parents and not excluding them from their lives.
Genia Ruscu has a Master’s Degree in Social Work Counselling.