Codependency in Young Adults


Young adults and teenagers can often form intense relationships and friendships during their formative years. While many of these relationships – whether romantic or platonic – are harmless, in some cases, they can be incredibly toxic. Codependent relationships can negatively impact young adults and teenagers, affecting every area of their life.

Signs of Codependency

Codependency means that one or both people in a relationship are unhealthily reliant on the other. They feel the need to stay connected to the other person and can feel like they cannot live without them.

Many types of relationships can be codependent, including parent and child, sibling relationships, friendships, and romantic relationships. There are several signs that a relationship may be codependent, such as:

  • The inability to set healthy boundaries
  • A desire for approval from peers, partners, and family
  • A fear of abandonment or being alone
  • Issues dealing with change
  • Putting other people’s needs ahead of theirs
  • Being unable to make decisions on their own

Young adults and teenagers will often deny their friendships and relationships are codependent and unhealthy. However, if they regularly come home from seeing a friend and seem upset, stop seeing their friends when they have a new romantic partner, or begin lying to cover for their friends or romantic partner, it could be a sign of codependency.

Causes of Codependency

There is no one cause of codependency in young people. It is often an amalgamation of their interpersonal experiences throughout life and can stem from factors such as:

  • Substance abuse in the family – young adults who have dealt with family members with substance abuse disorders may struggle with codependency. They may take on the role of caretaker within the codependent relationship, and often learn to focus on the needs of their family member rather than themselves.
  • Mental health conditions – young adults with a mental health condition may be more likely to develop a codependent relationship. Along with this, young people who grow up with a mentally ill family member may develop a codependent relationship, basing their self-worth on caring for others.
  • Abuse – young people who have experienced abuse and trauma in childhood may develop unhealthy, codependent relationships as they do not know what healthy relationships look like.
  • Personality disorders – those with personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), dependent personality disorder (DPD), and narcissistic personality disorder can develop codependent relationships. All of these personality disorders affect relationship dynamics – for example, those with BPD can develop very intense relationships very quickly, which can become codependent.

A person can be either a giver or a caretaker in a codependent relationship. In some cases, they may enjoy their role, but the relationship can still be toxic and incredibly unhealthy despite this. No matter how unhealthy the relationship is, it can be challenging for either party to leave, as they can become intensely reliant on one another.

Trauma and Codependency

Childhood trauma can lead to codependency in the future. Trauma affects the child’s sense of self, hindering their ability to form relationships in the future. Studies have shown that those who were abused as children were more likely to be codependent as adults.[1]

Codependency can also be a trauma response in relationships. Along with fight, flight, and freeze, another fear response called fawn may also come into effect. Fawning involves flattering or accepting abuse to appease the abuser and prevent further harm.

Those who have had an abusive childhood may develop a tendency to fawn over those they have relationships with as they think this will protect them from further abuse. This can then lead to the development of intense codependent relationships in the future.

Codependency vs. Dependency

Codependency can sometimes be confused with dependency.

In dependent relationships, people can spend time alone or with others and be comfortable in either scenario. In these healthy relationships, their needs are met, and all sides can express their requirements and emotions constructively.

However, this is not the case in codependent relationships, as often only one person has their needs met as the other usually focuses all of their energy on making sure they are happy. People in codependent relationships may also resent the other person having friends outside of the relationship and may insist the other person spends most of their time with them alone.

Preventing Codependency

It can be difficult to see your teenager struggling with a codependent relationship, no matter who it is with. However, there are some behavioural changes teenagers can introduce to separate themselves from these relationships:

  • Spend time alone – relationships are important; however, so is time alone. Teenagers may be reluctant to spend time by themselves, as they would rather be with their friends, but being alone allows them to reflect on their relationships, develop themselves and practise self-care.
  • Focus on hobbies – codependent relationships can mean that young adults do not have as much time to focus on themselves and their hobbies. Encourage your teenager to explore hobbies they have not had time for recently or find something new they would like to try.
  • Practice smart selfishness – codependent people often focus on others much more than themselves. Practising smart selfishness can help break this habit and encourage young adults to put their needs and emotions first. This could include saying no to an event or seeing their friends rather than their romantic partner.

Sometimes, extra support may be needed to prevent and reduce codependent relationships for teenagers. Therapy can be a useful tool to discover what is driving the behaviour and provide helpful coping mechanisms to manage it in a constructive and positive way.

Codependent behaviour in teenagers and young adults can be concerning to see; however, the earlier it is identified, the sooner help can be offered.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with codependency, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Özdemir, N. and Buzlu, S., 2019. Codependency in Nurses and Related Factors. Annals of Medical Research, (0), p.1.