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December 12, 2021

Unhealthy Parent-Child Dynamics: How to Break the Cycle of Toxic Parenting & Codependence.


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Do you have children?

Those beautiful, little beings of light birthed from a distinct or not so particular desire to breed offspring.

I have one; she is a beacon of light. She is the light of my life. She woke me up like no one’s business, and I will forever be grateful for her presence in my life. But she also showed me some deeply unhealed parts of me that had not seen the light of day until she came into the world.

I call her lovingly my long-awaited awakening. It took me a couple of years to wake up from my slumber, but when I did, oh boy, I got a rude shock. I’m not sure about you, but I grew up in an era where children should be seen and not heard. Maybe it was my country upbringing; they’re hard as nails those country-living folks.

I frequently felt unloved, unheard, and emotionally unfulfilled. Hence, a term I now know as “Emotional Neglect.” Emotional neglect does as much damage as physical neglect. Emotional neglect comes in many forms. It can be an extremely unavailable parent to swinging the other way and becoming a highly available parent, bordering on anxious parenting. Either way, these styles of parenting are trauma-formed styles of parenting.

I would posit that I fell into the emotional neglect category for the better part of my child’s first few years. So much so, she acted out and misbehaved in ways that caused me deep anxiety. Little did I know, she was literally trying to get me to wake up and see and hear her. Our children do not come into this world “pre-programmed.” They learn from us; they learn from their environment. They take on our stressors and pain and then model that outwardly through misbehaviour. They don’t mean to; they do what they do—act like kids, further proven by Dr. Gabor Maté.

Did you know that when we have kids, we parent them the way we were parented subconsciously? It’s like a program we run unknowingly.

Our parenting behaviours lead to these outcomes. If we were under-parented, then we, too, will under-parent. If we were over-parented, we, too, will over-parent. Sometimes, though, we may swing the pendulum the other way because of emotional trauma from childhood. If we were under-parented and we made a vow to never do that to our kids, at some point in our lives, we will likely swing the opposite way and overcompensate for what we didn’t have as a child. Were we over-parented and it caused some form of emotional trauma? Chances are we, too, will swing the pendulum the opposite way and under-parent.

So how do we find the happy medium? How do we reduce the swings? We first need to acknowledge how we were parented under/over. Then we need to make a deal with ourselves. I will not work from a place of extremes or emotional trauma anymore. My child needs the best of me. This is where self-healing and self-care come into play. If you present yourself to your family as a whole and healed person, you can then be a healed and whole parent.

As Dr. Shefali stated in her amazing book, A Radical Awakening, that which you do not heal, your children will have to do so for you. I know this to be the truth from my own experiences. I grew up in an emotionally unavailable family, which led me to an emotionally unavailable marriage, and then an emotionally unavailable parent.

I am not proud of that fact, but it is true. Thankfully, I gained self-awareness of toxic parenting behaviours and stopped them promptly. So how did I do it? First, I realised it all started and ended with me. Second, I took myself to a therapist and started to do inner child work. Third, I journaled because that helped me make sense of everything. Writing has been in my blood, and looking back, it has always been my healing modality since I was eight.

Now, thankfully, my daughter and I have a healthy relationship. One of mutual respect and complete honesty. Does she tell me everything? No, and I respect her right not to tell me everything. Funnily enough, by not pushing, she feels safe enough to tell me things without even asking.

What I do model to her is this: there are no secrets in this house; I will be honest with you if you will be honest with me. Kids know and feel more than we give them credit for—they are sponges.

I tell her you must respect me as your parent, I make the decisions, and you need to trust that what I am doing and saying is in your best interests. In turn, I will trust you by giving the small tasks that build my trust and faith in you. I will teach you a healthy sense of independence, not codependence. When we breed codependence in our children, it starves them of self-authenticity.

When we see our children as extensions of ourselves, that is unhealthy. It breeds enmeshment and unhealthy parent-child dynamics. They are not extensions of us. They are individual human beings gifted by a power greater than us to experience life on Earth through you. Yes, they have our DNA and family lineage. But we do not own them; they are not our property; they do not owe us anything. We, parents, do owe it to our kids to give them all the available tools to become independent, self-sovereign, interdependent, not codependent humans.

Just so we know, codependence is only for childhood, not adulthood. If we start trusting ourselves and our kids, we can breed healthy relationships built on trust.

Let me tell you of a scenario my child loved. She went away with a family friend and their family of three. The mother, a trusted friend, took her because I needed the help. It was hard for me to accept the help. But I trusted she would be safe. The mother, also a nurse, going through similar awakenings, gave my daughter and her son (both the same age) $10 to go off and buy something they wanted. They were eight years old at the time. After the whole weekend away at the beach, do you know what their favourite part of the weekend was?

When the mum trusted them enough with the $10 to go (not too far, within limits) and spent the money on something they wanted, it wasn’t what they got that they took away from the experience; it was the feeling of trust. The belief that, somehow, they were capable of doing trustworthy things. Does that mean you let the reins out altogether? No, but showing our children we trust them and they are safe to express themselves in any way they need also indicates emotional maturity and strength. Not just for you but also your child into adulthood.

The takeaway from all of this? Your children are sponges to their environment.

If they’re acting out, it is for a reason. They need your attention. Kids run on feelings alone. If you do not meet their feelings of safety and security, in adulthood, they will find other means to meet those unhealed, unmet needs.

We only have our kids for a short period; use that time wisely. They deserve it, and you need to be available to them.

Take the phone or iPad out of their hands and ask them what they want. It turns out it’s free and simple: you.


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