Mom’s codependent, and I don’t know what to do


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Dr. Peele:

I think my mom may be co-dependent…she won’t go to therapy and I feel like her psychologist. What can I do to get her some real therapy?


Dear Violet:

Sometimes, people won’t go to therapy, and their families must be their therapists. Indeed, the best therapy involves the family in order to make sure that, once therapy is over or even as it continues, that the person’s issues are addressed. Since most people live and deal daily with their families, if these do not support new ways of acting and being, then anything therapy may suggest will quickly be subverted. In fact, the family can be viewed as the genesis of the person’s problems (this is the view of family systems theory associated with Salvador Minuchin). And, do keep in mind, people have lived for centuries without therapists, and it is not at all clear that we are a lot better off psychologically then the generations before us.

I once had a woman who came to me for therapy who you could call codependent — she went from man to man. She was actually consulting me it seemed in order to find out how best to latch onto one of these fellows! And she had a daughter, perhaps like you, who was attractive and serious and seemingly much better tuned in than her mother. I worked with them together at times, in order to build the mother’s awareness based on the daughter’s insights. The daughter had herself quickly resolved to leave an abusive relationship.

Obviously, I don’t know much about your situation — is your mother married or in a relationship (to your father), is she fairly promiscuous; how old are you and what is your romantic situation? How well do you communicate, with your mother and family and in general? Here are some techniques for being helpful:

  1. speak to your mother in terms that are meaningful to her (i.e., along the lines of what will make her happy);
  2. communicate as gently as possible (preferably largely by asking innocent or helpful questions, without barbs or trying to score points);
  3. help her to take small practical steps (e.g., going places where she might meet reasonable people, developing interests she has, conducting dates in a reasonable manner, without making it seem like each date is the second coming).

Of course, if your mother is hurting you through her behavior, it may be hard for you to play a dispassionate role in her life. Does she have any other relatives (such as a sister) whose help you might be able to enlist?

If you know your mother fairly well and are concerned about her, and are in fairly good control of your own life, you may be able to help your mother considerably. Of course, I don’t want to lay a heavy load on you if your are too young — although that seems already to be happening. Just as with therapy with drug addicts, if you can work helpfully with your mother she might become more amenable to entering formal therapy — just watch out, you might start wondering whether the psychiatrist or psychologist she finds is as effective as you are!


P.S. There is a movie out now about a girl and her mother — the mother is a love addict who sometimes ignores and hurts her daughter. But the two have a loving and mutually supportive relationship. Unfortunately, the film is only showing in some small theaters. It is called Tumbleweed.

Stanton Peele

Stanton Peele , recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.


  • Alias says:

    This is terrible advice. Help is all a codependent person wants. Having a codependent parent is like having a child as a parent. They can be funny and sweet but you become their caregiver, and their therapist.

    Your life doesn’t feel like its yours. You feel guilty just having fun. You always put other people first and you never feel good enough. You constantly feel guilty. You feel like a monster. All of your mothers happiness is your responsibility to give. You hate her and love her and when you make her happy you feel like an evil lord bestowing mercy.

    You feel worn out and exhausted, you become unable to express emotion and eventually have trouble even knowing what your feeling. You are unable to receive love or to give it. You have trouble having a relationship, or you never do. Its an empty awful existence.

    You want to scream and shout at your mother when she calls but it would be like a torturing a crying puppy that doesn’t know why its being hurt.

    So you listen to her while she talks and tells you her problems . You say the right things – That rude manipulative friend of hers ” Mom, she isn’t worth your time” and when shes worried about something you say “not to worry” because “by next month it will all have been over”.

    Then she says she loved chatting to me (even though she did most of the talking) and that she loves you. She tells you how much you mean to her. And you think “All I had to do was call and it “made her day”. She loves me. Whats wrong with me ? why do I hate her?. Why am I such a selfish monster. ” and you turn the rage on yourself and push yourself to be better, achieve great things so you can feel like you are a good person, but its never enough so you numb yourself with drugs.

    Then you nod and say “Ill talk to you tommorow” You keep the anger inside of you. Thats where the monster in you hides. And behind the monster there are feelings of hurt and abandonment. You want that child you call mom to be a parent so you can tell her that your hurting and sometimes you do. You try to tell her why she hurts you. You dont let it out. You explain it to her like a parent tells a child why what they did was wrong.

    She cries and you comfort her. You swallow your anger and it aches like a lump in your throat as you tell her that you care about her. She asks you what she should do and you dont know, you search your feelings and find yourself wanting to shout at her but needing to comfort her at the same time. It feels hard to know whats right or wrong. Are your feelings even right? maybe there is something wrong with you?.

    You forget why you brought it up and wished you hadn’t. You were probably having a bad day and now you took it out on her. Maybe she is a good mother? She loves me – What have I done!? Im a monster. She tells you shes sorry and you feel like a…..

    Then you numb it out because its pani all the time. And its lonely.

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