As soon as I became a mom, people started criticizing me for doing things my way. I constantly heard from elderly relatives, mom friends, and strangers in the grocery store that I shouldn't hold my baby "too much," wear them in a baby carrier, breastfeed them, comfort them, or talk to them like adults, lest they become co-dependent. It's hard not to worry, especially about your child, but honestly: there are more than a few things that won't actually make your kid co-dependent. Oh, and science agrees.
So what is co-dependency anyway? Most of the time when people talk about co-dependency they are referring to an adult relationship where one (or more) person is dependent on the other for validation, decision making, and a sense of self-worth. According to Mental Health America, they can have a tendency to do anything to please the other person in the relationship, have trouble making decisions, but are simultaneously obsessed with being in control. According to Raychelle Cassada Lohmann MS, LPCS when it comes to a parent-child relationship, co-dependency can mean that your child has extreme separation and social anxiety, which can persist into adulthood and affect their future adult relationships.
So, how does this happen? According to Lohmann, it goes back to communication, the expectations you set, and the spoken and unspoken rules you expect your children to follow. If you don't talk about problems, tell your kids to tough it out or not to cry, and expect perfection or set unrealistic expectations, you might be setting your child up for a low self-esteem and constant need for validation that are the cornerstones of co-dependency.
From research (and years of experience as a parent), I have learned that those things that people typically associate with clingy, co-dependent children — offering praise, comfort, affection, and help when they need it — can actually help prevent co-dependency. It might seem counter-intuitive, but drawing your kids in close when they are little, praising them as they grow, and being a stable base from which your kids can explore the world, will actually help them grow into independent, resilient kids and adults.
So, next time someone tries to warn you about your kids becoming co-dependent, you can rest easy (and maybe send them here for a dose of science).
Comforting Them When They Cry
I can't stand to hear my kids cry. But I've learned that if you respond too readily to your crying infant, toddler, or kid, people accuse you of coddling them or making them co-dependent.
Science, however, shows that not only will comforting your child not make your kids co-dependent, it might actually make them feel secure and safe, and in the long term. Your comfort will help your child feel a healthy attachment to you and greater independence. This is not to say that you have to rush to your child's side whenever they cry, or that letting your baby cry for brief amounts of time — like during sleep training — is a bad thing, but it definitely won't make them co-dependent if you comfort them.
I have heard time and again about how breastfeeding — on demand, for comfort, at night, after a certain age — causes co-dependency. According to Jean M Twenge PhD, author of The Narcissism Epidemic, breastfeeding isn't the problem, unless it's paired with over-indulgence. Research shows that when all other things are held equal, breastfeeding and formula-feeding are equally valid choices, and neither will impact your child's mental health. So as long as breastfeeding works for you and your child, you should feel comfortable continuing, and when it doesn't, it's OK to stop.
You can't spoil a baby by holding them too often or too long, and you certainly aren't going to make them co-dependent. Please don't misunderstand, I don't think you need to hold your baby all day, every day. It's totally OK to put the baby down if you are tired, need a break, need sleep, don't want to hold them while you poop, or are so completely touched out at the end of the day that it makes your skin crawl. You won't mess your kid up if you need to take a break, but you also won't make them co-dependent if you want to hold them all of the time.
In fact, a study published in Pediatrics showed that pre-term babies who were frequently held skin-to-skin in their early days had fewer behavioral issues and stronger social skills 20 years later, compared to pre-term babies who weren't. Wow.
Listening To Them
You wouldn't believe how many times I've been accused "letting my kids run the house" because I do things like stop touching them when they tell me to, or let them wear mismatched clothing to school. For me, listening to my kids' preferences is honestly easier than trying to force them to do something else. People see this as giving in to "co-dependent" children, but I see it differently and, well, science backs me up.
A study published in the journal Child Development showed that kids who have parents who listen to them and respond to their needs do better both in academics and relationships when they reach adulthood. According to Parentingscience.com other research shows that stronger communication and responsiveness with your young child results in them being better able to cope with challenges when you aren't there, which means less, not more, co-dependence.
Co-sleeping is one of many things I swore I would never do. I knew it was dangerous, and was told that it would mean my kids would be co-dependent. So yeah, like many parents, I started co-sleeping out of desperation, then worried that I would totally mess up my kids.
The good news? Research shows that co-sleeping won't impact your child's cognitive or behavioral development at all. As Michael J. Breus, PhD, a sleep specialist writes for Psychology Today, as long as you do it safely — never before age 1, and no drugs/alcohol — stay on the same page as your partner, and stay aware of sleep problems when they arise, co-sleeping can be a great fit for your family.
Talking To Them Like Adults
There's a fine line between talking to your kid like an adult and expecting them to act like one. For me, talking to my kid like an adult means that I offer them respect, I don't seek to control them, and I want to help them learn to make good choices on their own. If you think about it, that is pretty much the opposite of co-dependency.
According to researchers at Stanford University, speaking directly to your young child and using complex sentences can greatly impact your child's language skills and vocabulary.
Offering Help When They Need It
When you offer your kids help when they need it, you teach them two things: that they can rely on you, and how to ask for help when they need it. What's more, offering and giving help can actually help your child develop social skills.
According to one study published in the journal Child Development, when moms let their babies and young children try tasks independently, but also offered help when things got too difficult, those children benefited both socially and academically in adulthood. According to the study, the key is to get to know your child and when to intervene, let them try it first on their own, encourage problem-solving, and only help them when they ask or appear frustrated. So, yeah, forcing your kids to power through, or pull themselves up by their bootstraps, might be counterproductive when it comes to encourage independence.
According to Mental Health America, co-dependent people often have a low self-esteem and seek praise from others to feel good about themselves. This doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't praise our kids for fear of making them co-dependent. According to experts, praise is important in building your child's self-esteem and as they grow.
As Gwen Dewar, PhD writes on Parentingscience.com, certain types of praise can actually make your child more resilient and persistent. Dewar advises parents to be sincere, specific, and descriptive when they praise their kids, to only praise kids for things they have power to change — think hard work and mastery of a skill versus being pretty, tall, or thin — and to try to avoid praising kids for things that come easily or that they already like doing.
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