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Codependency and Teens: When Friendships Turn Toxic

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Adults often overlook codependency among teens. It’s easy to understand why: it’s often masked as extreme loyalty to a friend or other individual, when it’s really a harmful, toxic relationship that needs to end.

In a codependent friendship or relationship, the dynamic often looks like this:

Friend 1 has a warm, friendly, seemingly helpful type of personality that some might call “people-pleasing.” Usually, they appear academically, socially, and behaviorally successful and well-adjusted.

Then they meet Friend 2.

Friend 2 often struggles with one thing or another. They may engage in risky behavior like substance use, inappropriate sexual behavior, truancy, or even criminal actions. Friend 1 tries to help Friend 2 change the direction of their at-risk behavior. They become close.

Friend 1’s parents don’t like the fact their child hangs out with Friend 2. They worry about the influence of his/her behavior on their child.

They’re right to worry.

Because soon after they become friends, Friend 1 starts covering up for Friend 2: doing their homework, giving them money (which Friend 2 may use for drugs), bringing them food, helping them with errands, accompanying them to various places, talking to them at all hours of the night, etc. Friend 1 doesn’t like the risky actions Friend 2 engages in and often encourages the friend to stop.

Friend 2 constantly says things like “I promise not to tell your mom you cut yourself/you took drugs/insert another dangerous behavior here – if you promise you’ll never do it again.”

But it’s a futile effort.

The Enabler

In many cases, the person in Friend 1’s position is actually enabling Friend 2’s behavior, and Friend 2 may be enjoying all the attention, worry, and concern they receive from their peer about their risky actions. Also, the struggling friend may receive lots of benefits from their well-adjusted friend. Doesn’t everyone want a food and money supplier? Don’t we all want a personal homework completer, designated driver, and confidante to keep all our secrets?

Friend 1 (and sometimes Friend 2) knows they should sever the relationship, but they feel unable to do so. There are a few common reasons why codependent friends stay in these toxic relationships:

  • The enabler in a codependent pair of friends often subconsciously enjoys the feeling of being needed by their struggling friend. Friend 1 can think: “Without me, Alex can spiral dangerously out of control.” They feel that they need to keep their friend safe or in check.
  • The struggling friend may be reluctant to give up such a caring, compassionate, and helpful partner. They think: “Jane is the only one who really understands and accepts me, just the way I am, with all my imperfections.”
  • Codependent friends sometimes get so enmeshed in each other that it’s hard to extricate themselves from the relationship. They can’t tell where one friend ends and the other begins. They do everything for the other person. Boundaries become nonexistent. This naturally makes it hard to cut off contact.

Although it’s hard to end a friendship or romantic relationship, codependent teens need to do just that. They need to ignore their friend’s texts. Stop calling or receiving calls. Stop accompanying them to places or helping extricate them from difficult situations. They need to stop covering up for them and helping them.

They need to stop talking to them, period.

Codependent Teens Need Help

If a teen really wants to help their friend, they need to get them professional help.

If a teen is struggling with substance use, mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, the only person who can help them is a mental health professional. No teen should keep their friend’s severe mental health struggles a secret—even if they feel special that they are privy to such information. They need to let go of the need to care for this person and tell the appropriate authorities. In many cases, the struggling teen needs treatment in an adolescent mental health rehab center, where they will receive professional treatment.

Additionally, many residential and outpatient treatment centers incorporate Codependency education and workshops into their treatment curricula. Some adolescent treatment centers even bring their teens to Codependents Anonymous (CodA) meetings. During CodA meetings, teens learn the difference between healthy relationships and toxic ones. They learn about appropriate giving and receiving. Most importantly, they learn how to help their friend – and themselves – as opposed to enabling them.

Don’t Forget Friend 1

It’s important to mention here that even teens who appear stable (like Friend 1 above) may need therapy, too. Many times, teens who form codependent relationships with struggling peers have their own emotional issues to address. For example, codependent teens may struggle with perfectionism, insecurity, people pleasing, and fear of rejection. These symptoms may be rooted in a childhood devoid of affection or attention. To compensate for a lack of love, they frequently seek out intense relationships that provide them with a feeling of being needed and loved.

A mental health professional can address these concerns. They give teens tools and techniques to process their emotions and relationship needs in healthy productive ways. They can teach teens how to form healthy relationships, how to recognize when a relationship needs to end, and how to achieve emotional balance and stability without forming toxic, codependent friendships.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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