The Codependent Teen

“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” ― Melody Beattie

Teenagers can often struggle with codependent relationships without their families noticing. Often, it is under the guise of an intense friendship or romantic relationship, which masks the fact that it is a toxic relationship that can damage their mental health and self-esteem.

Codependent relationships can have negative effects on teenagers throughout their lives. They can be unhealthy, toxic, and in some cases, abusive.

Understanding Codependency

The term codependency originated from Alcoholics Anonymous and points to the fact that Substance Use Disorders impact not only the user but also loved ones.[1] Those in the self-help community picked up the concept of codependency, and books such as Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet G. Woititz and Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood introduced it to millions of people.

It is vital to distinguish codependency from dependency. Dependent relationships can be positive and healthy, whereas codependent relationships are actively harmful. Signs of dependent relationships include:

  • The relationship is a priority, but both parties have other friends and outside interests.
  • Both people express their emotions in a healthy way and work together to make the relationship beneficial for both.
  • The relationship is valued, and both people find love and support from the other.

However, the signs of a codependent relationship are very different.

Signs of Codependency

There are many indications of codependent relationships. These can include:

  • Minimizing how the codependent person is feeling
  • The codependent person not perceiving themselves as lovable
  • Extreme loyalty to the other person
  • Putting others’ needs above their own
  • Giving gifts to people whom they want to influence
  • A lack of values and interests outside of a relationship
  • Only feeling worthy when engaging in self-sacrificing behavior

Studies have estimated that around 40 million Americans are codependent in some form, and a majority of them are women.[2]

Causes of codependency can include:

  • Growing up with a family member who had a Substance Use Disorder – There is a strong connection between substance use and codependency.[3] Having a parent struggling with substances can teach children that they are selfish and greedy for wanting attention and that they should only focus on the needs of a parent. The child can then seek out codependent relationships later in life.
  • Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse – Those abused as a child may repress their feelings and needs in response to the pain of abuse, which can lead them to form codependent relationships in the future.
  • A family member struggling with a mental or physical illness – Children who care for ill parents can develop a habit of helping others before themselves and neglecting their own needs, which can lead to codependent relationships in the future.
  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – The loved one of a person with BPD may become codependent and assume a caretaker role within the relationship.
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder – Codependent people are sought out by those with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder to gain an audience. Codependent partners can help someone with NPD feel special and important while helping the codependent person  feel needed.

Other causes of codependency can include Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), personality disorders, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Even if the giver or caretaker enjoys giving their time, effort, and emotions to another person, this can quickly become unhealthy. The other person in the relationship can also struggle to leave if they become reliant on the giver, and their leaving can cause immense distress to the other person.

Codependent Teenagers

Teenagers can develop codependent relationships with their friends, partners, or family members. For example, they may form a relationship with another teenager who is struggling with a Substance Use Disorder or other risky behavior and try to influence them to change or attempt to take care of them.

The codependent teenager may cover up for their friend’s risky behaviors and try to help them by bringing them food, picking them up, or helping them with homework and errands. Although this sounds positive, this dynamic can slip into a toxic relationship, with the struggling friend enjoying the attention and care. The codependent teen, through trying to help, can also enjoy feeling needed.

Teenagers can also form codependent relationships with their romantic partners. They may stay in an unhealthy or dysfunctional relationship because they feel needed and put the other person’s needs and emotions above their own. They may also accept sexual attention instead of affection and love, compromising their values and beliefs to avoid rejection.

Codependent teenagers may also struggle in an academic environment. They may find it hard to accept praise or to feel satisfied with their work or overcompensate for their insecurity by demanding recognition for other students’ accomplishments.

Codependent relationships can develop between teenagers and family members, especially if there is a history of dysfunction or abuse. The teenager learns to repress their needs in order to focus on the needs of the parent or caregiver, and they may exhibit signs of codependency such as:

  • Feeling sorry for the parent, even if they hurt them
  • Avoiding conflict with their parent at all costs
  • Doing anything for the parent, even if it makes them uncomfortable or upset

Parents can also become codependent on their teenagers through enabling behaviors. They may also take parental sacrifice to destructive levels, which can then harm the emotional development of their child.

Identifying Codependency in Teens

Many teenagers will deny that their relationships are codependent or unhealthy. However, there are some signs that you can look out for that your teenager might be in a codependent friendship or relationship:

  • They regularly come home upset.
  • They have a new romantic partner and stop seeing their friends.
  • They start lying to cover up for a friend or partner.
  • They ask you to start lying to a friend’s parents to protect them.
  • They have repeated struggles with the same person.

If you recognize any of these signs, your teenager may be in a codependent relationship. Although this can be distressing to see, there is treatment available.

Treatment for Codependent Teenagers

Teenagers who form codependent relationships often need professional help. While codependency is not recognized as a personality disorder, it can still be debilitating for teenagers and stem from unresolved trauma or mental health conditions.

Treatment available for codependency includes:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – one study found that CBT improved self-esteem among teenagers aged thirteen to eighteen.[4]
  • Support groups, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA)
  • Self-help guides

It is vital that you seek treatment for a codependent teenager. If codependent behavior goes untreated or unacknowledged for an extended period, it can lead to more serious issues such as Substance Use Disorders and self-destructive behaviors.[5] People prone to codependency may also enter into unhealthy and abusive relationships to feel wanted or needed, which can further impact their mental health.


Codependent teenage relationships can be worrying as a parent or caregiver. Teenagers may lash out if they feel that someone is interfering in their relationships and friendships, which can make offering assistance difficult.

The earlier that parents or caregivers can identify a codependent relationship, the more help and assistance can be offered to the teenager. Spending extended amounts of time in codependent relationships can lead to a loss of identity, which is already a struggle during the teenage years. A sustained effort is required to unlearn codependent tendencies, and recognizing the signs is crucial to help teenagers who need it.


[1] Davis, Lennard J. (2008). Obsession: A History. London: University of Chicago Press. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-226-13782-7.

[2] Hughes-Hammer C, Martsolf DS, Zeller RA. Depression and codependency in women. Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 1998 Dec;12(6):326-34. doi: 10.1016/s0883-9417(98)80046-0. PMID: 9868824.

[3] Asher, Ramona, and Dennis Brissett. “Codependency: A View from Women Married to Alcoholics”. International Journal of the Addictions, vol 23, no. 4, 1988, pp. 331-350. Informa UK Limited, Accessed 26 Nov 2021.

[4] Taylor TL, Montgomery P. Can cognitive-behavioral therapy increase self-esteem among depressed adolescents: a systematic review. 2007. In: Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE): Quality-assessed Reviews [Internet]. York (UK): Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (UK); 1995-. Available from:

[5] “Codependence”, in: Benjamin J. Sadock & Virginia A. Sadock (eds), Kaplan & Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry on CD, Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 7th ed. 2000, ISBN 0-7817-2141-5, 2-07-032070-7.

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