What Is Codependency? An Introduction

Links in a chain are shown hanging above a brick ground.Codependency is a pattern of behaviors and beliefs learned by children of dysfunctional families while they are growing up. These behaviors and beliefs can be helpful to the family unit, because they enable it to survive, and the child learns to depend on those behaviors in order to manage in the family system. Unfortunately, in the long run these behaviors are very harmful to the child.

That’s a lot of words to clarify. First of all, exactly what is a dysfunctional family? It can be defined in many ways. For this purpose, a dysfunctional family consists of one or both parents who have issues that seriously interfere with their functioning as parents and partners. Some of these issues include alcoholism or other drug addictions, mental disorders like bipolar or schizophrenia, or physical abuse. Children growing up with impaired parents in these painful family systems learn codependent behaviors and beliefs because at least one child has to assume some of the duties normally performed by a parent—or else the family is in total chaos. So one child steps up to the plate and begins to overfunction. This child becomes the “family hero.”

If Mom is too drunk to fix dinner, the hero child takes care of it. After dinner, the other children may need help with their homework, to have a permission slip signed, or need someone to talk to about being bullied at school. Again, the “hero child” steps in. The more the parent or parents underfunction, the more the “hero child” overfunctions. The non-alcoholic parent may need a confidante about their problems with the dysfunctional parent, and again, the “hero child” assumes that role. Thus, some of the tasks get done, and the family survives.

The Consequences of Being the “Family Hero”
How does taking on all of this adult responsibility affect the “hero child?” From the outside, they appear to be doing great. Mature beyond their years, they are responsible, want to do what is right, anticipate the needs of others, and do whatever they can to please everyone they meet. Inside, though, they are an endless sea of pain. The “hero child” feels overwhelmed by tasks way beyond their maturity level, and since performing like an adult is impossible, they feel chronically inadequate.

They are so busy anticipating and meeting the needs of others that they lose their sense of self and identity in the process. They work harder and harder to keep everybody and everything under control. Since this is also impossible, the harder they work, the angrier and more frustrated they feel. Of course, they keep these feelings inside. They quickly learn that expressing a negative feeling causes an explosion in an addicted family. The last thing they want to do is add more chaos to the house. Thus, the “hero” suffers through hideous family scenes, and later, everyone behaves as though nothing ever happened. This makes the “hero” feel isolated, crazy, and question their judgment. Since the “hero child” often becomes a confidante for the other parent, the boundaries in their relationships become all mixed up.

All of these behaviors become automatic in the “hero” and persist into adulthood, where they cause all sorts of problems. The “family hero” believes that he is responsible for everybody and everything. He believes that he knows and can fix what is wrong with other people. He believes that the needs of others are more important than his and that he must help everyone who needs it. Boundaries in his adult relationships do not exist. He believes he should not talk about what is going on, that he should not feel, and that he cannot trust anyone. Under stress, the hero overfunctions desperately until he is exhausted.

The next article will explain how these automatic behaviors and beliefs affect the adult “family hero,” whom we will call the codependent. Keep in mind, these same behaviors and beliefs that cause so much pain and suffering in adulthood enabled the co-dependent to survive as a child. We will call them survival consequences, and the idea of changing any of these can be terrifying to the codependent.

© Copyright 2010 by Joyce Henley, MSW, LCSW, CEAP, SAP. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment

    July 28th, 2010 at 11:42 AM

    I have a cousin who was the eldest child of their house and because their mom was not mentally stable,she kind of became the mother of the family and took up responsibilities well beyond her age.This got to a point wherein she virtually became a parent to her siblings.Although they got a substitute parent,her life was ruined.Her education was discontinued and she was mentally exhausted.I just hope all this does not happen to anybody else ever again.

  • Catherine Bischoff - Marriage Counseling

    July 28th, 2010 at 12:20 PM

    What I know about co-dependency is that it is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral
    condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction”
    because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.
    The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics.
    Co-dependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.
    It often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence.
    often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence.
    A lot of change and growth is necessary for the co-dependent and his or her family. Any caretaking behavior that allows or enables abuse to continue in the family needs to be recognized and stopped.
    This may include learning to say “no,” to be loving yet tough, and learning to be self-reliant. People find freedom, love, and serenity in their recovery.

  • Hannah

    July 28th, 2010 at 2:58 PM

    How can you say that codependency is what helps a family to survive when it is going through the downfall that is the alcoholic family member?

    Every family that I have ever witnessed which has these kinds of relationships looks so unhealthy to me, and not at all in “survival” mode.

    It may help that one or two children make it through it but I can’t see how there is any way possible that it could be recognized as a good thing for nay of the members of the family. It teaches one person to always be covering up for naother, and the alcoholic that there will always be someone else there to pick up the pieces that they are shattering.

  • H Snape

    July 28th, 2010 at 9:07 PM

    @Catherine Bischoff:I kind of agree with your statement that this trait is passed on from one generation to another. My mom is kind of an ’emotional fool’ and her siblings have taken advantage of this for their monetary benefit during the property dispute.Now my sister is also like her.No matter what someone says to her she soon forgets all that and continues being sweet to that person and I’m scared she will be hurt later in life with this attitude :(

  • Gerry

    July 29th, 2010 at 2:14 AM

    Its kind of sad how those who are nice and do more than they are required to actually suffer from the extra mile that they travel for others’ happiness.

  • Nikki1348

    July 29th, 2010 at 4:46 AM

    Alcoholics look at the horrible things that you do to your families! Sober up, would you?

  • Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

    July 29th, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    Studying, treating, and healing from dependency for thirty years, I can say it’s elusive and and a life’s journey. Most people come into therapy complaining about a symptom, like depression or anxiety, or about someone else’s behavior. It may take time for them to identify the codependency at the root of their problem, originating in their childhood.

    Codependents have the task of rebuilding their sense of self and self-esteem. Women especially suffer from this due to cultural values which have supported women’s inferiority and women’s roles as caretakers. Being a caretaker is great, as long as the person has boundaries.

    See my ongoing blog on Women’s Issues and Self-esteem.

  • donny mccharthy

    July 29th, 2010 at 10:26 AM

    is it only me that thinks schools can actually play a role in this?when they see a drop in a particular student’s attendance and scores,they need to take a look.and if they do find that it is because of a problem at home(like an alcoholic or deceased parent),they could probably ask the student to have a talk with the school counselor.this could really work I believe.

  • Cathy

    June 11th, 2019 at 10:43 AM

    That is a great point! I wish someone had done that for me when I was in grade school. I was a smart kid, but after my mother suffered a nervous breakdown my schoolwork suffered tremendously. It should have been pretty obvious that something was wrong.

  • Joyce McLeod Henley

    August 10th, 2010 at 2:33 PM

    Thank you all so much for your interesting comments. To Hannah, when I wrote that it helps the family unit, I meant that it helps prevent some crises. As you said, it is good for nobody in the family. Actually the crises are good, because they often result in at least some of the family getting help.
    I certainly agree that it is passed down from generation to generation. It is really difficult when people come into therapy and try to break a long generational pattern. It can be done, though. I have some clients who have made wonderful recoveries. They deserve alot of credit. I know it takes time and alot of courage.
    I hope you all will read my future articles on recovery. The next one comes out on September 15.

  • gentle Lammy

    January 11th, 2013 at 6:13 AM

    As a codependent, I can tell you, that some of us were just born too sensitive. It wasn’t alcoholic parents at all. I sense problems that my siblings did not sense. I worried about things that my siblings did not worry about. I grasped that although my Dad was a pretty good Dad, he was very old school as far as a husband with his sense of entitlement and my Mom was very old school in waiting hand and foot on him.
    I didnt just “assume” someone did not like me, I could sense those that didn’t like me. I took blame from a brother and sister that were older, for motives they accused me of that I just didnt have and could never understand why they thought so badly of me also. I took a lot of “she’s the baby and gets her way” which also really wasn’t true. I felt almost invisible most of the time.

    When I knew Mom and Dad were struggling financially, I tried not to need anything. If they weren’t getting along for any reason, I worried about them, Mom more than Dad. When I realised eventually, that Mom had bad nerves and could hyperventilate even out of a dead sleep suddenly, I protected her by not going to her with child problems.

    Some of us were just BORN this way, and it isn’t so much any parent’s fault.

    Now I care take. I’ve care taken so much I’m sick of it but no matter how much counseling or how many books I go through, I will caretake. It is as if I do it automatically without even thinking, until I’m worn out and THEN I realize what i’ve been doing.

    I am a little over a month separated from my Narcissist husband but this is about the 10th separation in less than a year and a half, and I’m separated, because he couldnt tolerate me standing up for myself, I me expecting to be able to do some things I wanted to do instead of everything that he wanted. :)

    And I feel okay about it right now, but I need to start really working on me. I have got to love myself and let God love me, rather than depending on people for that love and care.

  • Bronwyn

    April 23rd, 2014 at 1:26 AM

    I have one issue with this article, co-dependency is not only related to people growing up in homes where substance abuse takes place and not all co-dependents are “hero” children. I am co-dependent and I was certainly never the hero child. Although I don’t doubt that the points in this article are valid, it would be amiss to assume that only these circumstances would lead to co-dependence.

  • Sandy

    December 4th, 2015 at 9:24 AM

    I agree with you, codependency is not related to drugs and or alcohol abuse, they are totally wrong

  • Marsha

    January 26th, 2017 at 7:20 AM

    Fact. You can be both a co-dependent and a alcoholic. Co-dependents are not only the eldest child (I’m the 3rd). My eldest sister is co-dependent, as well.

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