Picky Kids and the Codependent Mom: Three Tips to Break the Cycle

Oct 10, 2010 by

It’s taken me awhile to figure out what “codependent” means.  What I’ve learned makes me think that codependency is actually pretty common among us parents.  If we aren’t living with an alcoholic or an addict or an abuser (yet), we may think, “That’s not me.”  But parents of picky eaters may be just inches away from falling into the role of a codependent.

Codependency is more complicated than the joke I’ve seen about you and your cat falling into those roles: he likes being petted and you like petting him. In its classic form, it’s rather that your daughter is an addict and you bail her out, cover for her, fail to hold her responsible for anything, maybe even give her money for her fixes so she doesn’t suffer, making it easy for her to continue her habit, all with the goal of changing her. It may also be rather that your son likes to eat junk food and you like to feed it to him, though you might be complaining the whole while.

Codependency is perpetuating your child’s problems by trying to over-control, all while enabling those problems and taking them on as your own. It’s being overly tied up with another person’s problems in a way that makes the problems worse for both parties. Being codependent is anything but fun, yet it can be hard to see clearly to breaking free. The boundaries of where we need to back off and where we need to hold the line can be impossibly blurry.

Parents of picky eaters are perfect candidates for codependency.

If, for example, your child, Josh, a little overweight, refuses to eat but a few things: bean-and-cheese tacos, sausage pizza and chicken nuggets, you offer bribes, get emotional, beg, threaten and yell at him to eat the healthy meals you fix. But he won’t eat them, so he cries for what he wants to eat, and you give it to him. You always keep those foods on hand, so he won’t go hungry.

Mom is the one being controlled by little Josh while the problem continues. She makes it possible for him keep doing the destructive thing. Meanwhile, emotionally, his problem is more Mom’s problem than his.

“When we attempt to control people and things that we have no business controlling, we are controlled,” writes Melody Beattie, in Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.

Beattie gives a few pointers that can be applied to codependents in the feeding relationship to breaking free from the cycle of codependency:

1. Take care of yourself. Making dinner is normal. Making two dinners every night, including a special one to please the picky, is not. Getting up to feed a three-week-old in the middle of the night is normal. Doing it for a three-year-old or a 13-year-old is not.  If your eight-year-old wakes you up in the night because he’s hungry, he needs to find himself sorry he did so, not rewarded for doing so.

Just because you’re suffering doesn’t mean you’re doing the best thing for your child. Taking care of yourself is not selfishness, or mutually exclusive of taking care of your child. Kids benefit by learning to respect others’ rights and needs. They also are likelier to learn normal eating habits.

2. Detach and minimize your reactions. “Sometimes people behave in certain ways to provoke us to react in a certain way,” Beattie explains. “If we stop reacting in these certain ways, we take all the fun out of it for them. We remove ourselves from their control and take away their power over us.”

3. Let kids be more responsible for their own actions and own problems. Providing healthy, tasty meals is normal. Making sure kids eat it is not. Picky eating is a direct reaction to being pressured to eat. Have faith in children’s ability to know how much they need to eat and what they need to eat, from among your healthy choices.

Kids making choices about what they eat–when all the options are good–is normal. Kids making choices about what parents offer them to eat is less so. If they want a certain food or want it a certain way, and seem to be jerking you around, engage their efforts to make it happen.  If little Josh wants something complicated, give him the job. Don’t work twice as hard in the name of giving them “choices” (see number one above) or just to get them to eat. It doesn’t work. Parents should provide the best foods possible, and then they need to back off.

When we over-control, writes Beattie, “People will either resist our efforts or redouble their efforts to prove we can’t control them.” They also tend to punish us somehow when we try to make them do something they don’t want to do, she notes. We parents gotta make kids do some things, but we don’t ever need to feel responsible for making them eat. Their appetites equip them perfectly to take care of themselves from day one.

Beattie examines why the codependent parent works so hard, to everyone’s detriment:

“We control in the name of love.

We do it because we’re ‘only trying to help.’

We do it because we know best.

We control because we’re afraid not to.

We do it because we don’t know what else to do.

We control be cause we think we have to.”

Related posts:

Eating Power Struggles with Kids: Why they’re Useless and How to End Them

The False Dilemma of Controlling What Kids Eat


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