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Expert Insights: Ilene Dillon, LMFT and LCSW on Kids and Co-Dependence

February 5, 2013

by Michelle LaRowe
Editor in Chief

Recently I had the pleasure of connecting with Ilene Dillon, LMFT, LCSW, author and life coach. As a seasoned family therapist, she’s a wealth of information about all things family, so I took the opportunity to get her take on children and co-dependence. Here’s what she had to say.

eNannySource:  What is co-dependence?

Ilene: There is no one who can get more tired than someone caring for a young infant. Why is this? It’s because infants are totally helpless and need someone to care for their every need in order to survive. Not only does the caretaker have to do the caring, but s/he must figure out what the child needs as well. This is much more difficult to do than we think, especially when your infant is uncomfortable and screaming!

When your child is an infant, you are willing to have that individual “use you,” taking up your time, your emotions, your energy and your caring. This is the design of things. We are all born co-dependent, meaning we need to have someone (I call that person an “energy broker”) who helps us exchange what we need with the world. As infants, this means getting messages about what is needed “out,” while also getting what is needed to be “brought in” by the “broker.” We parents love our little babies and realize that this broker position is part of the deal—it’s what our child needs in order to survive and begin to grow up. We allow our baby to manipulate us (note that I use two other terms interchangeably with co-dependence:  manipulation and energy-sapping). And even though we may get tired, we love it!

What does this look like when your child is 53 years old, however, and is still expecting another person (a broker) to allow the use of that individual’s energy for whatever your adult child needs to exchange with the world? It’s not pretty. Lots of people want to tell this person to “grow up”! Co-dependence is a term that has been developed to describe this condition: when an adult-appearing individual utilizes another adult’s energy, usually without conscious agreement from the broker. I call a person behaving in this way a “Lifestyle Energy Sapper,” one who knows of no other way to live than to live enmeshed with other people, needing them to be a part of whatever that individual is doing in the world.

Interestingly, most people with whom I have discussed co-dependence believe that it is “normal.” I do not agree. I believe that humans are designed to grow out of co-dependence, just as we grow out of bed-wetting. Sadly, most parents have not been apprised of this possibility, and so they don’t offer the help children need in order to grow past co-dependence. We have accepted that “everybody manipulates,” not realizing that manipulation may be common, but it’s not really “normal”!

eNannySource:  When do children begin to grow out of it?

Ilene: Remember when your two-year old was announcing “me do it myself!”? Two year olds are driven to begin growing out of co-dependence. Unfortunately for them, however, their body and brain have not yet developed to the point where they can put energy mainly through themselves. They still need a broker for a while.

Somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4, a child develops the ability to ask for what s/he wants, to pull the blanket up to keep warm, to get a glass of water on his/her own and to do a lot of things without needing to have a broker manage the exchange. They’re not perfect at this yet, but it’s the time humans can begin to grow out of energy-sapping and move toward adulthood. As childhood goes on, that child is designed to take on more and more of the responsibility for exchanging energy directly with his/her world.

Babies “need” another person to act as a broker; without such a broker they will die. Adults, on the other hand, “want” to have others be with them, give to them and work on their behalf, but without such behaviors from other adults, they will still survive. The difference between a co-dependent person and an adult is this very difference between “need” and “want.”

eNannySource:  What things hamper a child’s independence?

Ilene: Parents usually miss helping their child grow out of co-dependence for three reasons. First, they don’t know that children need help with this part of life, so they don’t give it. Second, they believe that asking a small child to start taking responsibility for his/her life is too much (even when the child takes over this responsibility gradually). Third, they are themselves manipulative (never grew out of it), and therefore feel they “need” to stay enmeshed with their children, not at all wishing those children to develop independence.

These are the biggest reasons children have difficulty becoming independent, too. Couple them with the fear most parents have about children being kidnapped, sexually abused or hurt, and parents begin to hover in the style that has been called “helicopter parenting.” This style of parenting can cripple children for life, even though the parents are operating from loving concern. Hara Moreno, an editor for Psychology Today magazine, has written A Nation of Wimps, an exposition of what this costs our children and our democracy. Being fearful, helicopter parents who don’t allow our children independence also robs them of their ability to make good decisions and develop confidence in themselves.

eNannySource:  What can parents do to help them grow out of it?

Ilene: To help our children grow out of co-dependence, we need to 1) Realize they need our help. 2) Encourage our child(ren) to take as much responsibility as they want to or can (without heavy overload), realizing that responsibility is one of the primary building blocks of self-esteem, and that all children experience a drive to be in charge of their own lives and choices. We can partner with our children on this, allowing them to be independent decision-makers, based on their capability and level of development. 3) Address our own co-dependence, moving ourselves to “want” from others, but not to be in “need” of others for our well-being in our own lives.

eNannySource:  What are your best three tips for raising independent children?

Ilene: Ultimately, parents want to raise children to live comfortably both independently and inter-dependently.

There are three good ways to do this. 1) Encourage your child to make decisions from the very early years, managing the early-years decisions by giving only two possibilities at a time, and gradually allowing more choices as your child matures. 2) Allow your child to make mistakes. Celebrate the mistakes as well as the great decisions. Jim Fay (Love and Logic Institute) says he is happy when he learns that a child has made a mistake because he knows that child is in process of learning something!  3) Review choices your child has made with him or her, determining whether the outcome is what s/he desires. If it is not, guide your child in making and testing a new choice. This will build your child’s confidence in his/her ability to make decisions and trust his/her judgment!

eNannySource:  Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Ilene: Many people believe manipulation is harmless. It is not. When individuals grow bodies that look adult, but are operating emotionally like a three year old (which is what happens when we don’t grow out of manipulation), their lives can become very painful. They are easily involved in abusive relationships, for example. Abusive relationships result when two people are so fearful of being separate (independent) that they remain in situations where they are not treated well.

Therapists do not work with abuse perpetrators and victims in the same therapy sessions, usually, because it is so difficult to determine who really is the perpetrator and who really is the victim! When we have two individuals who are afraid they won’t survive if they don’t hang on to that other person, each becomes helpless and ineffectual. To make up for this, they attempt to control each other. Nobody likes to be controlled, so anger develops. You can see the loop of abuse and co-dependence developing as I describe the scenario. As a parent, you can protect your child from getting into abusive relationships by assisting them to grow out of co-dependence, as humans are really designed to do!

Then, your child will become an adult who is comfortable being alone as well as being together with partners. S/he will be able to set clear and firm boundaries, which in turn allows for greater intimacy and closeness. Your adult child will feel confident, be able to trust his/her judgment and know what good decisions s/he is capable of making. You’ll be delighted to have raised a child to adulthood who can stand tall, be emotionally self-reliant, and who still is able to connect deeply with others.

Ilene Dillon, LMFT and LCSW, is a family and life coach, author, teleseminar leader, professional speaker and has worked for 40 years as a California-based Family Therapist. Get your free 10-page report on Incredible Communication by visiting Ilene at www.raiseincrediblekids.com. Ilene is the author of The ABCs of Anger: Building Emotional Foundations for Life, The ABCs of Love, The ABCs of Loneliness, and When Fledglings Return: How to Stay Sane and Loving When Adult Children Come Back Home to Stay (Kindle). Contact Ilene at admin@raiseincrediblekids.com


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Bobbles says:

As usual, succinct. And to the point.