Child and Parent (Source: KonstantinChristian/

Codependency in the Family: Short and Long-Term Effects on Children

by | August 14, 2019

Families are faced with challenges which are regular part of life — granted — but a dysfunctional family, or family member, may lead to what is called codependency.

It’s a hot topic in mental health and wellness communities right now. You’ve probably heard the term before. But what is it, really, and how might it affect you or your loved ones?

We’re here to give you the full story, with the help of an expert in the field.

Codependent Couple
Mom and Son
(source: Geinz Angelina/shutterstock)

Codependency Defined

According to Darlene Lancer, LMFT, codependency expert and author of Codependency for Dummies, codependency appears when a person is focusing thinking and behavior around someone else. These people are reacting to something external rather than their internal cues.

Lancer explains codependent feelings and behavior vary and could become compulsive or worsen overtime if left untreated. Core feelings include denial and low self-esteem, while core behaviors can include dependency, dysfunctional boundaries, and control of oneself and others.

So how does this affect children in families?

Upset Child
Sad Child (source:  PR Image Facto/

Effects on Children

Codependency in the family can spawn other elements of dysfunction which negatively affect children.

As Lancer explains, dysfunctional communication arises when there is an absence of communication, or even the appearance of verbal abuse. Children become frightened to express their feelings and are often blamed, shamed or scolded.

Inconsistency of rules leads to children “walking on eggshells,” and living in constant fear, which can ultimately cause delinquent behavior or other issues as a result of what amounts to a violation of their worth and dignity.

According to Lancer, parents who are emotionally or physically absent create role confusion in the household. A child may take on parental responsibilities or becomes a confidant and companion of the parent. This is psychologically damaging to children because they will repress their own feelings in fear of betraying their parent.

Also emerging in dysfunctional families is toxic shame which, if left untreated, can lead to conditions such as low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, and codependency. 

Toxic shame, according to Lancer, is “internalized shame” which can hide in our self-conscious and be triggered. In a home where shame is used as a weapon, children will internalize it and will develop shame-based beliefs such as “I’m a bad person” or “I hate myself.”

As Lancer explains, dysfunctional parenting leads to codependency. Parents who behave in this manner can create an environment which is unreliable and inconsistent, resulting in situations where children harbor long-term trust, resentment, and anger issues.

“Children live in continuous fear and learn to be on guard for signs of danger, creating constant anxiety well into adulthood,” Lancer states.

They can also hold feelings of loneliness, shame and guilt which affect their ability to maintain healthy, long-term relationships.

Lancer explains how children, as a result of trauma, may develop what is called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) which is similar to PTSD experienced by war veterans. Childhood trauma has, not totally surprisingly, also been connected by research to symptoms of negative health in adults.

Mother and Daughter
Mom and child (source:  VGstockstudio/

Spotting Codependency in the Family

Spotting the symptoms of codependency in your family is an important first step in the healing and recovery process.

Codependent symptoms progress in stages and can worsen if left untreated, explains Lancer. These symptoms could lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, despair, and general numbness.

Symptoms include feelings of shame and low self-esteem. Poor boundaries are typical of codependents and members of a codependent family may feel responsible for others’ feelings or blame others for their own.

As a result of these poor boundaries, codependents are easily triggered and reactive. Some put others’ needs before their own because they feel it’s their responsibility.

Overall, families with codependency may witness or experience controlling or manipulative behavior, dysfunctional communication, and denial.

Family (source: Evgeny Atamanenko/

Breaking the Cycle

Chances are, if a child is raised in a codependent household, they too will become codependent. However, the good news is symptoms of codependency are reversible and there are organizations such as Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) which exist to help people live happy lives and maintain healthy relationships. Seeking therapy and other forms of treatment can help you achieve this as well!

According to Lancer, there are steps one can take to heal. Her recommendations follow.

1.         Come out of denial

2.         Let go of others

3.         Build an autonomous Self

4.         Raise your self-esteem

5.         Find pleasure – develop friends, hobbies

6.         Heal past wounds

7.         Learn to be assertive and set boundaries

8.         Pursue larger goals and passions

There is no such thing as a perfect family. In fact, family can feel quite the opposite — and that’s okay. However, healing and reversing the effects of codependency, and working to change a codependent environment, can help break the cycle and ensure children have the opportunity to grow into well-adjusted adults capable of forming their own relationships, and families free of codependency.

Are you, or someone you know, a survivor of a codependent household? We’d love to hear from you below.


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