Knowing the difference between parenting and codependency can be extremely difficult in families where one parent drinks too much. As the non-alcohol abusing parents digs in to wrest control of the behaviors exhibited by the drinking parent, they often engage in efforts to control, contain or manipulate those behaviors – not fully understanding that once brain function is compromised by alcohol, there can be no “normal” behaviors. This can cause the non-alcohol abusing parent to develop a host of behaviors to try make their loved one stop, such as wanting to protect their spouse from the full consequences of their drinking behaviors (“gosh, he hadn’t eaten all day; it just went to his head; he would never have said that otherwise”), coaxing their drinking spouse to stop or take a walk or go to bed, running interference in those negative situations they believe could harm their position at their firm or with a close friend.
In the world of substance abuse, these behaviors are often called, “codependency.” I like to think of them as the behaviors one adopts to cope with secondhand drinking when they don’t fully understand how alcohol changes brain function and therefore behaviors and that no one has the ability to control another person’s brain (therefore their behaviors) when they’ve had too much to drink.
Secondhand drinking is a term to describe the impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others.
What can be especially difficult for a parent is that many of these behaviors are also good parenting, such as wanting to protect one’s child from danger, coaxing a child to do things for their own good or running interference in those negative situations one believes could harm their child’s self-esteem.
So What Is the Difference Between Parenting and Codependency
I know I was a disaster when it came to making this distinction with my own daughters. I desperately wanted to help them avoid my mistakes and to succeed as far as they possibly could in school, in sports and with friends so that they would have “all their options open.” And, in this desperation, I was unknowingly manipulating them with a vengeance to do what I thought they needed to do. Much of this was driven by my own anxiety and secondhand drinking impacts, which I, in turn, directed at them with no conscience awareness that that was what I was doing.
I coached, coaxed, nagged and coddled them constantly, practically tracking their every move, always being there to pick up the slack, making sure they had everything, making sure they completed everything on time, etc., etc., etc. It was all done with the best of intentions and second nature as they’d become my default coping skills – skills I’d encoded as embedded brain maps to use (subconsciously) when confronted by danger or fear or anxiety or anger. But my knee-jerk reactions robbed them of some wonderful opportunities to make their own mistakes and learn from those mistakes. I never realized that in reacting as I did, my unspoken message was, “Here, let me do _____________ because I don’t think you can.” The unwitting outcome was that I was passing these traits along to my daughters and they were picking up their own unhealthy secondhand drinking coping skills. These two posts explain these concepts in more detail, Secondhand Drinking|Drugging – Codependency Connection” and “Coping With Secondhand Drinking|Drugging Can Cause a Young Person to Wire Unhealthy Coping Skills.”
As I learned the 21st century brain and addiction-related science, I could better appreciate the drinking behaviors for what they were – not a loved one’s true self, rather behavioral outcomes of a loved ones’ compromised brain function caused by drinking more alcohol than the liver can process. From there, I became more open to the idea that I needed to develop new coping skills – skills not rooted in trying to control my loved one’s brain – a brain compromised by alcohol changing brain function – nor trying to control anyone else’s brain, for that matter. It was from there, I could hone in on the distinction between parenting and codependency (secondhand drinking), which was one of the first changes I worked on with my therapist. Thankfully, it seems I was able to change my behaviors in time to have made something of a difference before my daughters left for college. I was also able to get my daughters their own help around the parental behaviors they’d experienced growing up. To provide more on what you can do if you’re in a similar situation, I share Darlene Lancer’s excellent blog post on this topic, “Codependent Children – What Can Parents Do?”
My therapist helped me understand that letting them do for themselves was really giving them back their gut feeling – that voice we all have (or are trying to find, again) that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong for us. He helped me appreciate that they’ll make mistakes – likely some big ones – and that’s okay. Mistakes always terrified me because I viewed them as something that could change a life forever and that was bad, bad, bad. And while that is certainly true, I liked my therapist’s take on mistakes better – “Mistakes guide us to make better decisions next time.” Nice!
If you are caught in this blurring of the lines between parenting and codependency or would just like suggestions for how to talk to a child about secondhand drinking or a parent’s drinking, check out this free PDF download linked to the image below. You may also want to read this one last post, “Secondhand Drinking | Drugging: Understand | Treat | Prevent – Break the Cycles.”
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