Whether you are in a fully codependent relationship or not, there can be subtle things people do in romantic relationships, with friends, and within a parent-child relationship that can heighten aspects of codependency.
Here to help parents spot the signs of codependency (whether in yourself or in your partner in parenting) and teach you strategies and behaviors to help you create a more healthy and secure relationship with your child is self-proclaimed “Codependent Perfectionist” and LMHC Alana Carvalho.
In this episode we’ll define what codependency is, the emotional burden it can place on our children, and practical steps we can take to break free of this pattern and foster healthier relationships.
They’re going to show us when it’s time for us to step in, or if you see a continuous struggle of some sort, you can say to your child, would you like my help with that? Right. I think the problem just is that we don’t ask, we just jump right in.
Dr. Sarah (00:22):
There are quite a few terms that have been taken from psychology and made their way into the mainstream vernacular terms like narcissism, sensory processing disorder and codependency often get thrown around, but are also often used incorrectly, which can cause parents to feel at best confusion and at worse a great deal of fear and anxiety. This week I’m going to be shutting some light on the topic of codependency. Joined by my guest Alana Carvalho. We’ll be tackling what codependency is and what it is not. And if after learning the real meaning of this term, you come to the realization that perhaps you are in a codependent relationship, we cover some important steps that you can take to shift your dynamic and move towards more healthy relationships, especially with your children. Alana is a good friend and a licensed mental health counselor. She is the co-founder of Intuitive Healing Psychotherapy Practice in New York City, and author of the wonderful book, Raising Empowered Children: The Co-Dependent Perfectionists Guide to Parenting. So she is the perfect person to join me in this conversation.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hello everyone. Welcome. Today we have Alana Carvalho here. I’m really excited. So Alana’s, actually a really close friend of mine, a very respected colleague and an absolute specialist when it comes to codependency and we’ve, I’ve gotten a number of questions recently about codependency in parenting, whether it’s like with respect to parent, to parent relationships, parent to their own parent relationships, and also parent to child relationships. So Alana’s here to help us understand this and just become more aware. So thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me. I’m so excited. This is my passion topic, so I can’t wait to talk more about it today. And of course, so excited to speak, especially with you, Sarah.
Dr. Sarah (02:56):
Thank you. And this is a very specific thing to be passionate about. Can you walk us through how you got here? Where, I mean, you’ve written a book on this, you have an entire practice that is, I’m sure, I know you do lots of things, but is very much speaks to this. And how did it come to be that this was your passion?
Well, this all came from one day as I was sitting in my own therapy and my therapist said to me, well, Alana, the reason you do that is because you’re codependent. And I said, what? Excuse me. And at first I was offended. I was like, did she just call me co-dependent because I really don’t like that? And at that time, I actually had no idea what she meant by that statement. But regardless, I still felt offended by it. And then after much therapy, I have warmed up to the fact that I now lovingly call myself a codependent perfectionist because a hundred percent I have massive codependency issues and have now thankfully been working on them for quite some time. And so it just felt right that I would bring that into my own work with clients. And I just, it’s like a joy to me to help people work on their own codependency issues.
Dr. Sarah (04:17):
And I love the way you talk about it with a lot of love. I think so much times we hear these sort of diagnostic terms and we attach shame or embarrassment or stigma around them. And the reality is codependency, anything else is a survival mechanism. It’s a strategy. It’s adaptive at the time, and then it starts to be less adaptive when we move out of that dynamic. Absolutely. And so can you help people understand what is codependency when the way we’re speaking about it?
Yeah, and I’m always asked this question, what is codependency? And I’m like, oh my God, it’s such a vast topic. It would actually be very difficult to explain the many ways that it presents. But in a very general sense, what codependency really means is an emotional enmeshment with somebody else. So the desire to fix, change, somebody else’s emotional experience, their behavior, their circumstances in life in some way, it can happen in one moment. It can happen over years with somebody. And how that actually shows up can be so different in different situations. Sometimes it’s people pleasing, sometimes it’s overly caretaking other people, sometimes it’s an inability to put boundaries in place. So all of that encompasses codependency and so much more. And I think you might have touched on, or we were talking about before, the idea that it happens in all different types of relationships.
So it could be in your work relationships and your friendships and your relationship with your significant other. But today, I imagine we’re mostly talking about parenting. I know we’re going to talk a little bit also about adult relationships around this, but particularly in the parenting realm, how I see it come up is in two main ways, and one is our desire to make our children feel okay or happy all the time. And the other can be in this other way where, which most of us are much more unconscious about where we actually have our children try to manage our emotional experience. So both of those can happen in parent-child relationships.
Dr. Sarah (06:46):
And I think even just that example kind of illustrates how codependency is a sort of two person experience. It is quite, by definition, it’s about two people, both of whom are having trouble understanding the ways in which we are actually separate. And it could be that it’s highly directed by one of those two people. It could be that it is very mutually codirected.
Dr. Sarah (07:16):
I think with kids it tends to start out more directed by the parent, but then it can also, kids are also very quick to, I mean, they also have a developmental appropriate level of dependence on us, which makes us extra complicated.
Yes, yes, exactly. Yeah, because you’re right Sarah, and you’re such a great wealth of knowledge on child development, and there’s obviously a stage in it in which there’s an appropriateness to our children wanting to please us and wanting to make everything and us taking care of them in certain ways. And what this speaks to is when that is taken to another level or we don’t appropriately grow out of that at some point. So sometimes people are like, well, isn’t this just how do you distinguish caring and codependency? And it’s like, well, listen, codependents are highly caring people and very well intentioned, and all of us care about our kids’ feelings and experiences as parents. That’s just a normal experience. The problem is when we want to change something for somebody else or we’re having difficulty sitting with their experience, and I think for parents, for most of us, I mean know for me, this is true.
It happens on a daily basis and it can happen in such minor experiences. I’ve talked often about the experience of just watching my kids struggle to get a snack and I just want to grab the snack for them and give it to them instead of letting them go get it themselves. It’s, it could be as minor as that sometimes to some of the bigger stuff. They’re going through a really difficult experience at school, and we want to just get them out of that experience. So we want to tell the teacher, no, you got to change this, or we want to call the friend parent and say, what’s your kid doing to my kid? Or whatever it is. All of the stuff that compels us to try to move these difficulties out of the way, that’s when we know we’re in our codependency rather than just in a general caring and concern for our child.
Dr. Sarah (09:31):
So it’s the need to, or the desire, the urge, whether we act on it or not, to change something either environmentally or internally for our kid, turn off the feeling or modify the environment so that the struggle goes away that is going. Would you consider that to be an urge or behavior on the parent’s part that is them their own codependence, or is that something that may elicit codependency in the child?
I think both. When it happens repeatedly over time, it creates, as you mentioned before, that dual codependency where the child then looks to the parent to solve the issue for them because they’re so used to it happening. And the biggest issue that I see with this and why I was compelled to write a book and all of this stuff is because those same kids can often turn into young adults who struggle to know how to navigate life in different ways. They struggle to know how to be in difficult feelings or navigate struggles at work or just even sometimes with their own self-identity because it can also strip us of that so many ways that it can impact us in the future. And so although it’s seemingly very loving in our early years with our kids, the reality is it can be very damaging in the long term.
On some level, we’re actually, and people don’t tend to see it this way, but this is an important piece that we’re kind of sending them a message, you can’t do this without me. You don’t navigate this, you can’t work through this, whatever it may be. And that’s the message we send every time we step in to remove an obstacle or try to change a feeling. The reality is we actually want to help our kids be in their feelings and then know that it’s okay to have feelings and that eventually they’ll move through them. We don’t want to send the message to our kid, oh my God, you have a feeling that’s not okay. But really it’s because we’re not okay. So we’re struggling with the experience of our child’s negative feelings. And so that there’s a lot of work for us to do around that to help our children navigate their feelings, send those right messages to build up their self efficacy.
Dr. Sarah (12:02):
And I think that’s so important because I talk about this a lot with anxiety because I use a very interested in this one therapeutic modality called SPACE, supportive parenting for anxious childhood emotions, which is a lot of this, you know, are talking about in terms of the codependency piece, but also when we help modify the environment or help our child avoid a feeling of anxiety specifically, we’ll call that an accommodation, it can act, actually, it sounds kind of counterintuitive, but it can actually maintain the anxiety because what you’re saying is what we’re kind of implicitly communicating to the child when we help them escape the anxiety is you can’t handle this anxiety. It’s pretty dangerous actually, because it’s making me step in and I’ve got to rescue you from it. And the problem with anxiety is anxiety in and of itself isn’t really an issue.
It’s when we are sort of afraid of the anxiety that we become, we move into the realm of anxiety disorders. And so I’ll distressed by my anxiety that I do all these kinds of things to avoid feeling it, including kind of soliciting my parents to make it go away. And the accommodations on the parents’ end of removing those anxious emotions or those environmental prompts that create anxiety for our kid kind of keeps all of us in this loop. And so in SPACE, what we actually do, it’s a treatment only with the parents. The child’s not involved even though they’re the identified patient. And it’s just mapping out the parental accommodations and very systematically targeting one at a time and coming up with a plan and having the parent pull that accommodation while emotionally supporting the child, but not behaviorally taking away the anxiety for them. So the child actually in an appropriate safe way has to experience the anxiety because the parent isn’t swooping in to take it out. And so I think there’s a little bit of overlap there between codependency and anxiety and the way we think about it and treat it.
Absolutely. And I love that. That’s why I love working with parents so much because the more that the parent works on themselves, the better outcome for the child. And of course, it’s hard for us as parents to look at ourselves. I get it. I don’t want to do it either, guys. But it’s the more that we can look at ourselves, change the way that we’re responding to things like we’re giving our children such a gift in that because they get so much benefit by the work that we do on ourselves and our ability to navigate struggles with them. To speak a little bit more to that point I made about the caring thing, a lot of parents will say, so Alana, are you telling me I just leave my kid and I don’t help them with anything anymore? And I’m like, no, not at all.
I’m not saying that, right? I’m not saying just write ’em off and ’em figure it out. But I like to think of it more. I believe our children actually know when they need help and support from us. And if we can be a safe container, they will come to us when they need support. If we show them what it looks like to give support in a way that’s not overbearing, not trying to fix it, not filled with all of our emotions, our children will naturally say, I need your help with this, or I’d really your advice on this. They might not say it that eloquently, but they’ll going to n show us when it’s time for us to step in. Right? Or if you see a continuous struggle of some sort, you can say to your child, would you my help with that? I think the problem just is that we don’t ask, we just jump right in. You must need my help with this because you’re struggling. And it’s like that’s not necessarily true. Struggle is okay. It’s okay to struggle.
Dr. Sarah (16:10):
And I think if you have a child, I’m thinking about the kid that’s maybe been raised for a while with this sort of comfort level on the parents with struggle and being able to say, oof, that’s tough. I’m here, but you got this. Yes. Versus perhaps a kid whose parents have historically been either anxious about struggle or flooded by their own nervous feelings or beliefs around struggle and frequently have rescued and jumped in to fix or removed the feelings for the kid.
Dr. Sarah (16:50):
Now, you’re probably going to have a kid who is going to come to the parents a lot who says, I need your help with this. I need your help with this. I need your help with this. As parents who are maybe new to this idea, how do you titrate off of that?
So that’s a great question because you’re right. When we’ve been engaging in codependency with our kid for a long time, they’re going to be very shocked if we just suddenly remove everything. So we don’t want to do that regardless of what age they’re at, whether they’re five or 25, we don’t want to suddenly start being very different with them. We want to speak to them. And to me, codependency recovery is so much about communication. So what I would probably suggest in that scenario is that you say to, you start with the conversation around it. I realized that I tend to come in and try to fix things for you all the time, and I realized you probably actually don’t need me to do that. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to start changing the way that I respond when you’re going through X.
So because I trust that you actually know how to do this better than I’ve let you do it, so I’m going to start changing. And then you start speaking to how you’re going to do it differently. And so the kids starts knowing, okay, that’s going to happen, mom and dad or whoever the person is, they’re going to start being different with me. And then you start showing that to them. For example, when you ask me for help, I’m actually going to try, I’m going to let you take some time with it before I step in to give you an answer. So they have that information instead of you don’t just go silent or you’re like, no, you got it, and you just run away. You have to speak to what’s happening with this. So the child knows, oh, okay, we’re changing the dynamic, something different’s happening here.
So we’re creating safety and trust around it. And then we can start to be different. And then if they start getting anxious or frustrated or whatever it may be, because we’re changing the dynamic, welcome to have reaction to that, we’re just reminding them, I, and for so long I’ve been doing this for you. That’s on me. That’s actually my bad, and I’m changing that. So I just want to remind you, I believe that you have this and I’m going to let you take more time with it, or I’m going to let you not know the answer and write down whatever you think, and then we’ll walk through it together at the end. So you’re starting to create space, and slowly you create more and more space. And I believe you can do those same things with all different things like financially dependent children on their parents or all different situations. It’s like you’re slowly starting to step back so that they can step forward, right? They can only step in when we step back.
Dr. Sarah (20:05):
Yeah, I love that. And I think that communication piece is so critical. We can’t expect our children to adapt to something if we don’t help them prepare for what is going to be different and name it and hold space for their feelings around it, but then still continue to show up in the new way that we said we would. Yes. Because that’s also going to help them trust that we are, if we say we’re going to do something and we do it, that’s comforting to a kid. Even if the feeling in the moment is frustration because they don’t like this new behavior of yours, or they don’t like the feeling that they have to sit in as a result of this new behavior. But don’t mistake that for, oh, this isn’t working and I shouldn’t do this.
Right. No, no. In fact, and I tell all the codependents that want to make changes, every single dynamic is going to give you pushback on it because nobody likes change. Nobody likes change, even when it’s positive change because it’s uncomfortable for us as humans, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that you, you’re doing it wrong. That doesn’t mean that you should change what you’re doing. In fact, it’s like no, stick with it. You got to get through the difficult point to get to the other side. So I do agree. There’s a really important piece that if you don’t think you’re going to be able to really withstand the storm, you might want to wait to put, to start making changes. Because to me, you know, mentioned the word trust. Trust is super important in the relationship and you will damage the trust if you say something and then don’t follow through on it.
Dr. Sarah (21:50):
And I think or start smaller, start with something really, really doable. You make a bit of a hierarchy here and absolutely don’t go to the top or even the middle. You go to the easiest thing to switch and you just switch one thing at a time, which I think is really important now. So we’re talking a lot about how to understand codependency from that angle of, I have from a parent-child relationship where the parent has sort of rescued the child a lot and now and how to modify that. But what about the other direction where parents for lots of reasons may be engaging in codependency with the child from the other end of having the child take on more of a parentified role or having the child manage their feelings or those are more extreme versions, but even on a very small microversion just saying things that may communicate to the child that my feelings are a little bit irresponsibility. Can you speak a little to that kind of other side of the coin?
Yeah. I think this is a harder one for parents to identify for themselves because they might not pick up on how this is happening, but generally speaking, it’s probably taking place in your language or lack thereof. Meaning if you’re having big feelings and you’re not speaking to them, it’s very common that your child will just assume it’s about them. Okay? So it’s a very normal thing that a child will think I did something wrong and that’s why my mom’s upset. And so I need to change that. I need to be different so that she feels differently.
This can obviously particularly happen if we have a child, a parent that struggles with mental health issues, substance abuse, abuse issues, me and the child then feels in some way they’re responsible or they need to do something to change it. So I think as a parent, even in, if you’re not at the level where there’s that type of issue going on in the dynamic, even in the every day, you want to be speaking to your kids in a way where you’re letting them know that what’s going on for you is about you and not them. So not you are making me feel this way, but I feel this way because I’m struggling with this or whatever age appropriately. So we don’t to shouldn’t be dumping our feelings onto our kids. A parent-child relationship is one of the only dynamics to me that is so different than many of the other dynamics I speak about.
And there has to be restraint on the parent’s part. I shouldn’t come in and dump my bad day at my kid because even if they don’t necessarily take it on, it’s theirs in some way feel like they’ve got all this stuff now that they have to do something with in some way. For example, I’ve seen parents who communicate way too openly about their financial situation to their kids, and then the kids then feel like, oh my God, I need to do something about this, or I need to change this. Or they just, there’s too much on their plate. Or a parent who’s talking to their child about perhaps their spouse or their ex-spouse, whatever it may be, not okay. It’s like it’s too much burden for your child. That’s not the right information to be sharing with them. Those are things that are for friends, therapists, other people that are in the same at your same peer level is what I’m saying there, but certainly not your children.
Dr. Sarah (25:51):
And I think where people often will get confused, they’ll hear this messaging, you know, don’t want to have your children feel as though they’re responsible for your behaviors, but then you’re also, what if I cry in front of my kid? Am I allowed to say I’m mad? Am I allowed to say, you’re making me mad? Am I allowed to say you’re making me sad? And I think it’s very confusing, but I think it’s important. You were saying it’s important to name your feeling. The distinction I like to give parents is you can name your feeling, but then that’s kind of where you stop. You don’t then tell the child that they’re causing that feeling, even if a behavior of theirs might be causing the feeling, right? So when you don’t pick up your toys and I ask you five times in a row, I feel like you’re ignoring me. And that makes me frustrated. That is not the same thing as saying, you never pick up your toys. Were you trying to make me mad? It’s subtle. It’s really, it’s tricky because usually when we’re saying this, we’re a little bit hot, so we’re not really thinking about every single delicate word choice, which you can also talk about repair because sometimes we’re going to say the wrong thing and that’s ok.
Dr. Sarah (27:12):
But this is a subtle nuance, but it carries kind of a really different message when you think about it.
Well, absolutely, and I think in general, codependence generally say things like, you are making me feel this way, even to other adults. It’s not just to our children. It’s like this idea that people do actually have control over how we’re feeling, and that’s actually not true in at all. Nobody actually creates feelings within us. We have feelings in reaction to other people’s behavior and reaction to the way somebody treats us and all of that kind of stuff, but they’re not actually creating or causing the feelings in a sense. So we have to be mindful about that because just that thought alone to me is codependent and needs to be corrected. We can easily, like you said, it’s very nuanced. And that’s why I tend to harp on language because I do think that the way that we speak about it shows the way we’re thinking about it. So even if get mad at our friend and we say, you did this to me, it’s totally incorrect. It’s like, you didn’t do this to me. I’m feeling this way as a result of what happened. And so we always want to be doing that in all of our relationships, especially with our children, but really you should be practicing that with the adults in your life as well.
Dr. Sarah (28:43):
And so I’m just kind of recapping another thing you said too, which was when you name the feeling, because could sound like we’re saying contradicted things. On the one hand you’re saying, don’t be silent. Name the feeling, because if you don’t, they’ll fill in the blanks, which I agree with. On the other hand, we’re also saying don’t say they’re causing it because they can’t cause it. Right. Which I see as two very different things, but in case people are getting confused by that, I think what we’re saying is you want to fill in the blanks for your children because if don’t we don’t, they will with something usually pretty egocentric. So if I’m just crying and I’m not talking about it, or if I’m really irritated and I’m not naming that for my kid, that’s a blank that they will fill in. So to name that to say, I am feeling sad, you notice me crying. Yeah, that’s happening. I’m feeling sad. And then to not then go into the place of causality, you said that thing and it hurt my feelings, and now I’m really sad. I think maybe in an adult situation that would be more appropriate, but to sort of say, I’m feeling sad. These are my feelings, I can handle them. Right?
So they’re the separateness that we’re communicating to, I am me. Yes, these are my feelings, I’m in charge of them. I can also help you understand what you’re seeing and that they’re not, in fact your responsibility. It’s tricky.
So tricky. But I think what you just said, Sarah, is really important. That piece of, and I can handle it, right, because I think anytime we give our children this idea that we can’t handle it is can create a lot of anxiety for our children and then a need, their potential feeling of needing to step in for us and it’s not their responsibility. So even if we don’t feel like we have it in the moment, we want to reassure our children that we’ll figure it out. We’re going to work through it.
Dr. Sarah (31:02):
And it’s ours.
Dr. Sarah (31:04):
Yeah. And in very extreme situations, we can get this sort of parentification of the child. Can you talk a little bit what a parentified child is?
Sure. So a parentified child tends to be a child that takes on adult-like responsibilities in some way. And usually they’re emotional responsibility. Sometimes they’re more than that in different situations. But oftentimes a codependent can come from a dynamic where one of the partners or one of the parents is emotionally unavailable in some way. And so that child stands in for the lack that parent has, and then the other parent tends to rely on that child for getting their emotional needs met.
Dr. Sarah (31:57):
And that is, I mean, I can so understand how that could occur. I have so much empathy for how a situation that can start to happen. But as a parent, what can we do if we start to notice this pattern? Whether I’m thinking in terms of the parent who is relying on the emotional support of their child and is like, Ooh, ooh, I’m doing this again. We don’t do it on purpose. Absolutely. But once you start to notice that it’s happening, what can you do?
Sure. And yeah, that’s a great point, Sarah. Everything that I think we’re saying, there’s nothing in judgment that’s just speaking about it, and there’s no reason to beat yourself up. You can change a dynamic any at any time. Even I’ve worked with parents, with adult children who they completely change their dynamic and it’s wonderful. Just know that nothing is damaged to a point that can never be repaired if both people are willing to work on it. So if you recognize this and you say, wow, I think I’m doing that right, my husband’s really not available, and I do tend to tell my son a lot about what’s going on and really look to him for support. My first thing would be great awareness around it is key, right? Awareness of how it’s happening when you’re doing it. And then the next step is to figure out, I think obviously you’re going to have to pull back from that, but you are also, the obvious piece to me is that you need more support in your life. So if your husband’s willing to work on it, great. If not, you may need a therapist, you may need a support group, you may just need to talk to your friends more often. Any of those options are perfectly fine. And if they are going to get your needs met, it might be all of those options. But like you have to take that big step back from what you’re doing with your child and start really changing the conversation with them and taking out all of that extra information that doesn’t need to be there.
Dr. Sarah (34:19):
I feel like this can also amplified a lot in situations where the nuclear family is not intact anymore and you have one parent over here doing one thing and one parent over here doing another thing. And you don’t have as much say as a team as to how one parent is or isn’t doing things. Can you speak a little bit to how this plays out in co-parenting and divorce and separations?
Yeah, so a lot of my work has been with divorced parents, and I truly give divorced parents a lot of credit because it is a very difficult thing to navigate, even when it’s a situation where it’s not terribly bad, it can be very tricky. Most importantly, I think is the fact is knowing the fact that we can’t control the other person. The hope is that you guys can get on the same page in some general way around parenting, but a lot of times that doesn’t happen. And I’ve worked with those situations where it’s just not going to happen. And so then the question becomes, how do I navigate that, right? If I can’t get on the same page as my ex and we’re not parenting the same way, what do I do about that? And sometimes there can be very severe cases where we need a lot different interventions of sorts, whether it’s that we’re doing family counseling or sometimes the courts have to get involved, that happens.
But generally speaking, we never want to make our child feel like they’re in the middle of it. So that’s a really important piece where we’re not bringing them or baggage around it or saying, I can’t believe dad did that, or whatever it is. But knowing that whatever it is that we provide them is going to be super impactful, even if the relationship or the dynamic with the other parent is very different or they have a very different parenting style, maybe confusing, and that can create challenges for the child, but you have to focus on the safe space that you are providing and knowing that that can be a really important preventative factor for children growing up. So don’t worry so much about what’s going on sometimes in other dynamics, unless it’s, as I said, at a point where people have to step in different ways.
If it’s different and you don’t agree with it, it’s tough, but you don’t have control over it, you know, can’t change it. I do think you can speak to the fact that things are different. Again, the communication piece, you don’t want to say, oh, I don’t like the way your mother does that, right? But you might want to say something like, me and your mom are very different, and we have different ways that we go about that, about things because we see things differently or we believe we have different beliefs, and I think that’s okay if it’s general neutral and not judgmental towards the other person. You’re acknowledging that people are allowed to do things differently and they don’t always agree on it, and that’s okay, but we have different perspectives and that’s why we do things differently.
Dr. Sarah (37:43):
I really like that because I think the neutrality of that statement allows parents the permission to have their feelings and their opinions and clarify them for their children and name when there’s a discrepancy. Because I think sometimes people get confused. Again, with all these rules, I’m saying in quotes with all these quote rules, it can, sometimes parents, they feel like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say, right? Because I’m like, it’s too confusing. So this idea that yes, you are allowed to name the thing. In fact, it’s optimal to name the discrepancy. Yeah, I noticed that when we’re together, this is how we do it. And when you’re with dad or mom, the expectation’s different. They do it in a different way. I do it this way because X, Y, Z or we are really different. We have a different view on how this works.
That’s so different than saying, I guess the difference is in what you’re asking your child to feel, right? Like you saying how you feel about something is different than saying you should see this as bad, right? Child, whether explicitly or implicitly, if there’s an implicit judgment on or negative valence on the Heather parent’s behavior, the implicit communication of the child is you should think this is bad. Whereas if you can present it in a way that doesn’t ask the child anything about their own feelings to say, but just kind of hold your own side. Again, this is that the nuance of the language, it’s really, it’s so yes, tricky, but it’s that how do I communicate a separateness, right? I am me, dad is Dad, I am me, you are you.
Right? Yeah. Mean to me, this is a crucial piece when you’re dealing with this type of situation. It’s the language and the tone with which we speak it. Because so often it’s like we have so many feelings about things, we just want to always put our feelings into it. And I don’t like that he gives you ice cream before dinner, whatever it is. And it’s like if we can keep it neutral, but acknowledge it, right? I believe that’s exactly what our children are looking for because it creates a safe space where then they know that they can bring us something that maybe they’re struggling with, without us having judgment towards the other parent, and then them feeling like they’re in the middle and they have to hold space. So instead, this creates a space where we’re basically saying to the child, even though we’re not saying this is what we’re communicating in it, I can hold space for us being different.
It’s not on you to hold space for that. I can hold space for that, and that means that you can come to me if you need to process something, and I can be a neutral person to you around it as, do you see what I’m saying there? Yes. It’s so often in these situations, what I see is that the parents will say to me, I could tell my son is struggling and he won’t say anything to me. And I said, and I’ll say to them, I don’t think he’s saying something to you because he knows that you are going to talk about how you feel about it and what you think about it. And that’s not actually safe for him. What he wants is to be able to go to you basically be like, I don’t like the way this is happening. And for you to just be like, yeah, I can understand that, but not to get into it, not to go, because your mom always does this, and that’s why. And then it becomes about me instead of about the kid. And that’s what we want to avoid. So I agree with you, Sarah. I can totally understand. If people are listening, they’re going through this situation, they’re not quite understanding how to say it. That’s what people like me and you are here to really help guide people through this. Because I do think it is very nuanced and it’s not something we’re taught naturally how to communicate in that way.
Dr. Sarah (41:47):
And I think that actually is a really good point too, which is, and I don’t know if people mean, obviously some people know this because they come to us for this, but a lot of therapy for co-parents is not about, I think people think of couples therapy or relationship therapy about repairing the relationship and get staying together or getting back together. And actually a lot of times we work with people where there, there’s no intention of getting back together. There’s no intention of repairing that part of the relationship. It’s simply how do we stay separated in a way that works for the family, for from a parenting support perspective, for aligning on our values for not always having to have arguments. And if we’re noticing that children in the family are starting to hold parental emotions, that would be a good time to say, we might need some help around this. Because a lot of times it’s hard to see it when you’re in it.
Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s why I say it’s not an easy thing to figure out, but to me, therapy is is the best. It was the best for me. I love being a therapist and helping other people. There’s no shame in getting support around this stuff. You don’t have to be on the floor to say, I need support or it would be helpful for me to figure out how to navigate some of this stuff. That’s what we’re here for.
Dr. Sarah (43:23):
Yeah. And what might a therapeutic intervention, or is it a one-off consultation, do long-term treatment, what do you work with the kids and the parents together? How do you approach it?
Well, I often work with the parents. I’m always happy. I’ve done a lot of work with parents and adults trying to repair their relationships, whether it’s a teen or a young adult. I love that work. And generally speaking, I’m going to navigate whatever is coming in the space in terms of it’s usually there’s communication issues. I’m going to help with getting the communication to be different, to be respectful, to be not so heated and emotional, and to learn actually how to hear one another and respectfully communicate back to that. To me, that’s some of the foundational work I’m doing in whatever the dynamic may be that’s coming in.
Dr. Sarah (44:24):
Yeah, I think that’s pretty much the most important part, right? Yeah. Because we were saying these subtleties in language, these subtleties in communication, verbal and where the work really is. And I think, again, I don’t want people to think, oh God, I have to become an absolute linguistic master at this. You don’t. And this speaks to this other piece of if you don’t say the right thing, you can repair. It doesn’t have to be like we have to walk on eggshells and practice writing out what we want to say before we have to say it. And if we say the wrong thing, we’ve totally screwed up. What would repair look like?
I think repair is actually one of the biggest trust builders in a relationship because the reality is, like you’re saying, Sarah, we’re the point is not perfection, and that’s not what anyone really wants or needs of another person. The point is to acknowledge when we’ve made a misstep, even if it’s a minor misstep or if it’s a major misstep, it’s just acknowledging it and coming back to it at some point. And generally speaking, we try to repair when our emotions aren’t so heightened, it’s not really helpful to try to repair in a moment where we’re all in our feelings or one of the people’s in the feelings. It’s like the point of repair is to come back to it at another time and say, Hey, I said this thing.
That’s not what I meant, and I shouldn’t have said it that way. And just taking responsibility for it. I made it seem like it’s your fault that this is happening and it’s not your fault. This is about me. And so we can start to change that. And to me, that’s some of the most beautiful moments in a relationship with somebody else where we can acknowledge something and then come together and have that the trust starting to come back in after some sort of moment where the trust has been broken. To me, that’s what creates intimacy in a relationship as well. These are the intimate moments where we can be honest, be real, and people will feel safe with us as a result of that because they know that we’re going to take responsibility for ourselves.
Dr. Sarah (46:52):
Yeah, I love that. And that’s so hopeful. It’s a very hopeful note to end on because I think it’s like we’ve just given you all this stuff to do, but also if you can’t do it in the moment, here’s what you do then, and that’s okay, and you got this.
Dr. Sarah (47:08):
If people want to learn more about the work you do or your book, where can they find you?
So you can find me on my website is thecodependentperfectionist.com, and that’s also my Instagram name. So you can find me both ways. And that’s where I have all my stuff, my book, my cards, my workbook, and I have some webinars on these topics as well. So feel free to find me there.
Dr. Sarah (47:36):
That’s amazing. Oh, Alana, thank you so much for coming on. It was so great talking to you.
It’s a great conversation. Thank you, Sarah.
Dr. Sarah (47:50):I hope this episode has been helpful. These subtle nuances and shifts can be difficult to see, especially if you’re deep inside these well-worn patterns. If you feel like you could benefit from one-on-one therapeutic support, you can always reach out to my group practice, Upshur Bren Psychology Group, where we specialize in supporting parents and families throughout all stages of the developmental timeline. To schedule a free assessment call and get a personalized recommendation of what treatment approach would be right for you, go to upshurbren.com. That’s U P S H U R B R E N .com. No matter what you are going through, you don’t need to go through it alone. So thanks for listening, and until next week, don’t be a stranger.
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