Brenda Kuchinsky, PhD & Karen R Rapaport, PhD, ABPP

Adolescent addiction affects the dependent person but also the family, the educational and social environment, and the community. A drug dependent teenager may act as if he is functioning in a vacuum but his behavior has significant repercussions, not foreseen by the addicted person but clearly felt by others on occasions when behavior is erratic, withdrawn, aggressive, or criminal.

Parental codependency is a common side effect of an adolescent’s addiction. Two driving factors in parental codependency are denial and natural parental feelings. A parent typically does not want to see the child’s problematic behavior and so throws money, rides, and other forms of support at the problem, hoping it will disappear.

Parents also typically want to nurture their child. They may continue to negatively support the addicted adolescent by providing money, rides, and covering for the child thus making it easier to continue using.

Parents who are codependent on their teen/adult children often play para-alcoholic roles in the family system. This entails their often unwitting support of the addictive behavior via compulsively rescuing the teen/adult child, or enabling the addict to continue using their “drug(s) of choice.” Roles that are para-alcoholic, or enabling, include caretaking, martyrdom, over-control, or over-responsibility.


It is important to note that the codependent person has not evolved in a vacuum. In my practice, I have often pointed out to codependent parents that their patterns may have originated in their family of origin and then continued with spouses or partners. Parental codependency does not spring full grown with the advent of the drug dependent child. This reactive behavior has been part of the parent’s repertoire for quite some time.

Codependency means making the relationship more important to you than you are to yourself. A drug dependent adolescent will quickly become the center of a codependent parent’s world with all the attendant anger, frustration, guilt, and shame that brings.

Such a parent may become completely drained with no positive results forthcoming from the relationship. Instead, the parent is caught up in an endless round of disappointments as the adolescent falls into a downward spiral that may have been facilitated by the very person who thought he was working for the opposite effect.

There are multiple signs of codependency. A listing of typical symptoms may be helpful to parents struggling with these issues. Several symptoms cluster around poor boundaries, which encompasses not only permeable boundaries in relation to your body, money, or belongings but also in relation to your feelings.

Under poor boundaries we can subsume reactivity, caretaking, and control. Reactivity leads to defensiveness because with poor boundaries comes the perception of people’s opinions being a reflection of you rather than just an opinion. It is personalized. Caretaking involves poor boundaries as the codependent person gives up their own needs and wants to care for the other person. A third symptom of codependency stemming from poor boundaries is control. A codependent person needs to feel control by controlling others.

Codependent people also suffer from low self-esteem and people pleasing tendencies. They have difficulty saying “No”. They want to be liked at all costs and communication may always be geared towards this goal. This need to have others like you at all costs, leads to dependency.

Denial plays a major role in keeping a relationship codependent. A parent may blame the other parent, peers or circumstances for their teenager’s addiction and be in denial about their own role in maintaining a dysfunctional relationship. They may remain unaware of the connection between addiction and family issues and the context within which addiction develops. Parents often remark in retrospect that it was just too difficult to face the truth.

Parents who enable their teen/adult children typically have many positive qualities as well. These include: high achievement, organization, self-reliance, attention to detail, excellent in a crisis, honoring commitments, reliability, and finishing tasks. They have leadership qualities, decision-making abilities, tenacity, high stress tolerance, and follow rules. Because of these strengths, the enabler usually chooses a career as a homemaker, or one that is in the helping professions. These careers include teachers, nurses, psychologists, counselors, doctors, lawyers, social workers, or clergy.

Solutions for parents who enable include:

I) Psychotherapy: Parents facing their own family-of-origin trauma and losses, as well as abandonment depression.
II) Al-Anon and/or AcoA Support Groups: Parents learn the universality of their dilemma, trust of others, and eliminating self-defeating habits that they’d acted out with their children.
III) Family Therapy: Psychotherapy with, or without teen/adult addict.
IV) Detachment: Letting go of control of teen/adult child’s decision-making process.
V) Learning valid communication skills, ego boundaries, effective decision-making and values clarification.
VI) Identifying cross-addictions, such as compulsive spending, shopping and/or over-eating.
VII) Interoceptive awareness: emotional and physiological awareness, acceptance and change.

Karen R. Rapaport, Ph.D, ABPP is a Fellow of the Academy of Clinical Psychology (FACLINP), and Board Certified in Clinical Psychology, American Board of Professional Psychology.