Codependency: Children of Alcoholics Making it All Better…

Codependency is a subject I am interested in. And I love self-help books. 

It’s embarrassing… but I’m, like, drawn to them. It may be the natural counselor in me. I’ve read: French Women Don’t Sleep Alone: Pleasurable Secrets to Finding Love; Succulent, Wild Women: Dancing with Your Wonder-Full Self; Radical Self-Love: A Guide to Loving Yourself and Living Your Dreams. And my most recent late night Amazon purchase – Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.


The topic of codependency just keeps coming up.


I got this book for a couple of reasons. First, the issue of codependency comes up again and again in my work as a counselor at Sanford. Codependency is strongly linked to substance use disorders. So much so, in fact, psychologists have developed theories to address it specifically.


The definition of codependency is, “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner. Especially one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction”.


Second, I am an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA). And I see signs of codependency in my interactions with others all the time. I recently started a new relationship with a pretty neat someone, and I don’t want my issues with codependency to poison the waters.


So I decided to fix it.


(And according to my book, one trait of the ACOA is an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.)


codependency children walking together

Making it all better …



The effects of addiction stretch farther than the addicted individual alone. Addiction affects an individual’s friends, co-workers, barista, etc. And addiction touches all members of a household, including the dog. Addicted behaviors impact the little ones particularly. Little ones developing ideas about the way the world works and the way a family should function.


We can forget that kids see EVERYTHING. Kids aren’t oblivious bystanders, they pay attention to absolutely everything we do and say. It’s their job after all, they are programmed to watch and copy.


So what effects do our addictive behaviors have on our tiny buddies? And where does codependency come in?



Like our reaction to most stimuli, COAs may respond to parental addiction externally or internally. Examples of external symptoms include rule breaking, aggression and impulsive behavior. Internal responses look more like anxiety and depression. It’s important to remember these behaviors may have roots in indirect effects of addiction. For example: Dad’s substance use may not be the reason Marilyn is fighting with girls at her school. Rather, Marilyn is a witness to domestic violence spurred by Dad’s drinking.


codependency mallard-ducks

Patterning after mom …


Make sense?



And then those externally or internally responding kiddos grow up to be adults. Adults in marriages, performing professional duties, and parenting children. There is an entire organization dedicated to supporting adult children of alcoholics. Appropriately named Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACOA. The organization’s website has a myriad of resources including meetings, literature, and counselors. And they define codependency in the following ways.


My good feelings about who I am stem from being liked by you.

The good feelings about who I am stem from receiving approval from you.Your struggle affects my serenity. I am focused on solving your problems/relieving your pain.

My mental attention is focused on you.

My mental attention is focused on protecting you.

And manipulating you to do it my way.

I solve your problems to bolster my self-esteem.

And I relieve your pain to bolster my self-esteem.

I put my own hobbies/interests to one side.

I feel you are a reflection of codependent me.

You are a reflection of me. Your behavior is dictated by my desires.

I am not aware of how I feel. Only how you feel – the essence of codependency.

I am not aware of what I want – I ask what you want. I am not aware – I assume.

My fear of rejection determines what I say or do.

And my fear of your anger determines what I say or do.

I use giving as a way of feeling safe in our relationship.

My social circle diminishes as I involve myself with you.

I put my values aside in order to connect with you.

I value your opinion and way of doing things more than my own.

The quality of my life is in relation to the quality of yours.


Do any of these statements resonate with you? They resonate with me. Nearly all of them, in fact. Especially that first one. If you don’t like me, I don’t like myself. Damn. That’s heavy! And so damaging.




I like this list because it does a good job of describing the experience/concept of codependency. A word, much like “bipolar,” that a lot of people use, but few use correctly. Codependency isn’t about an individual’s preference for company. It’s about placing your self-worth, energy, and soul into another person. It assumes that another person will help you to define your best self.


Does this describe you? Your kiddos? Your natural and unconscious behaviors and interactions hold a lot of weight.


*If this subject is important or interesting to you, I encourage you to spend some time researching. Knowledge is power! I’ve taken my information from a 1997 article called, Psychological Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics by Kenneth J. Sher, Ph.D. 


after marilyn head shot bio

Marilyn Spiller is a writer, sober coach, recovery advocate, and student of the world (she also holds a BA in English). Nine years sober herself, she penned one of the first sobriety blogs, "Waking Up the Ghost" in 2013. The blog garnered an international following, allowing Marilyn to communicate with thousands of folks in all stages of recovery. Marilyn is Sanford's Director of Marketing and serves as Editor-In-Chief for the Sanford online magazine, Excursions. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board, JACK Mental Health Advocacy.