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Codependency Disorder in Young Adults

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Codependency disorder refers to a type of dysfunctional relationship behavior in which one or both people experience an unhealthy level of reliance on the other. A codependent person may feel they are worthless without the other person. Sometimes referred to as a “relationship addiction,” codependency disorder is typically associated with low self-esteem, fear of being abandoned, and poor communication, among other symptoms and behaviors. Parents and children, siblings, romantic partners, and even friends can have codependent relationships with one another.

Furthermore, codependency and addiction are closely linked. In fact, codependency disorder was first identified as the result of extensive study of relationships within the families of alcoholics. Therefore, codependency has been found to be most common in relationships or families where one or more people struggle with substance abuse or other addictions.

However, there are other causes of codependent behavior, such as mental illness or abuse within a relationship or family. Let’s look more closely at codependent behavior examples and what causes codependency disorder in young adults.

Signs and Symptoms of Codependency Disorder

There are a variety of red flags that indicate that a relationship may be codependent, or an individual may be struggling with codependency. These signs and symptoms may include any of the following characteristics of codependency: 

  • Difficulty expressing emotions 
  • Finding it hard to trust yourself or others 
  • Inability to set healthy relationship boundaries 
  • Constant desire for approval from peers, a romantic partner, and/or family members 
  • Fear of conflict  
  • Terrified at the idea of being alone or abandoned 
  • Addictive, impulsive, or compulsive behaviors 
  • Having a hard time making decisions 
  • Not being honest with yourself and lying to others 
  • The need to control others’ behavior 
  • Confusing love with pity and a desire to “rescue” others 
  • Problems dealing with change 
  • Always feeling anxious about whether you’re making the other person in your relationship happy 
  • Putting the other person’s needs ahead of your own repeatedly 
  • Exaggerated idea of their responsibility regarding other people’s actions.  

What Causes Codependency Disorder in Young Adults?

For young adults, codependency disorder is most often the result of the interpersonal relationships they experienced in their family of origin. If their parents’ relationship or the parent-child relationship was dysfunctional, emerging adults can struggle with codependent behavior as they begin forging relationships outside the family.

There are three primary codependency causes. These are types of dysfunctions within the family of origin that are most likely to result in codependency disorder in young people: 

  • Addiction (substance or alcohol abuse or other addictions, such as food or gambling): In these cases, children may be focused on their parents’ needs or moods, and fail to recognize or pay attention to their own needs. Therefore, this pattern continues into their adult relationships.  
  • Sexual, emotional, or physical abuse: Children who are abused may gravitate to abusive relationships as young adults, because this is the only type of relationship they know. In addition, they may have a habit of hiding their feelings as a protective mechanism. 
  • A chronic mental or physical illness: In these situations, a child may be forced to care for their ill parent or sibling, creating an unhealthy dynamic. Hence, as a young adult, their self-worth may depend on caring for others.

There are additional causes of codependency disorder and codependent personality disorder in young adults. For example, parents who are emotionally immature may rely too much on their child to fulfill their emotional needs.

Types of Codependent Relationships

What are the different types of codependency? Codependency disorder can exist in different forms depending on the category of relationship. Here are several codependent behavior examples, according to the type of relationship.

Parent-child relationships: A codependent relationship between a young adult and their parent may involve any of the following feelings and behaviors:

  • The young adult feels responsible for the parent’s happiness 
  • The child lies to the parent in order to avoid disappointing or angering them 
  • Parents don’t respect the young adult’s privacy  
  • Parents share details about their own lives that aren’t appropriate for the young adult to know.

Romantic relationships: You can recognize codependency with a romantic partner by these signs: 

  • Constantly focusing on your partner’s needs and well-being, while ignoring your own 
  • Difficulty not knowing what your partner is doing or thinking 
  • Trouble figuring out your own feelings and needs 
  • Feeling responsible for your partner’s actions and behaviors

Friendships: When a young adult friendship is codependent, symptoms may include:

  • Putting the friend’s needs before your own at all times—or relying on them for all your emotional needs 
  • Frequently helping them get out difficult situations  
  • Feeling resentful and jealous if they try to involve more friends into your activities 
  • Lack of trust; fear that one mistake or argument will end the friendship. 

Codependent vs. Dependent Relationships

Dependency and codependency can sometimes be hard to tease apart. In a way, they exist along a spectrum. While codependency is a harmful and unhealthy relationship dynamic, there is such a thing as a healthy level of dependence in relationships. A healthy dependent relationship is when two people—whether romantic partners, friends, or parents and children—rely on each other for emotional support, connection, and love. 

In codependent relationships, one or both of the people involved often resents the other’s interests or friendships outside the relationship. In a dependent relationship, both individuals prioritize the relationship and their time together, and also spend time with others and do separate activities.

In addition, a primary component when comparing codependent vs. dependent relationships is whether both people’s needs are met, or only one person’s. In codependent relationships, one person usually focuses all their energy on the other’s needs. In healthy dependent relationships, both people express their needs and emotions.

The concept of codependency was formulated in the 1940s as an outgrowth of research into the relationships within families of alcoholics. And research since that time has bolstered that link. 

For example, one study used data from more than than 500 people who called a drug-related toll-free number to ask for help for a family member. The results showed that 64 percent of the participants, primarily wives and mothers of drug users, showed high codependency. Moreover, the authors of the study stated, “Self-neglect was almost three times more likely to occur in family members with high codependency than in those with low codependency.” 

Know the Facts

In a study of more than 500 people, 64% of people, primarily wives and mothers of drug users, showed high codependency.

Another, smaller study tested 60 women—all wives of men with alcohol and drug dependence—for codependent traits. Out of 60 participants, 49 were codependent according to the Codependence Assessment Questionnaire. Moreover, these women had less social support and fewer resources for coping. 

However, not everyone who comes from a family with a history of substance or alcohol abuse becomes codependent as a young adult. While children of alcoholics are at higher risk for certain psychological disorders, each person’s situation is unique and generalizations can be harmful.

How Does Codependency Feed the Addiction Cycle? 

In codependent relationships that revolve around addiction, a family member or friend often convinces themselves that the person with the use disorder will not survive without them. As a result, they make it their job and their identity to ensure the safety and well-being of the person with the substance abuse issue. Therefore, they may “help” the person in ways such as: 

  • Providing bail money 
  • Cleaning up after the other person has been using 
  • Lending or giving them money, which usually gets used for drugs or alcohol 
  • Making them food 
  • Cleaning their room or home. 

Although the caretaker shows disappointment in the other person’s behavior, they continue to enable it by caring for them. Feeling needed feeds the caretaker’s codependent behavior and tendencies. Hence, this leads to further enabling, which is harmful for both people involved.

Is Codependency a Mental Illness?

Codependency disorder is not a mental health diagnosis. (Dependent personality disorder, which involves an extreme dependence on others, is a recognized mental health disorder.) However, codependency and attachment trauma are closely linked. This relational trauma can also be an underlying cause of mental health issues, such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. That’s why there are clear associations between codependency and depression. In one study looking at the link between codependency and depression, 36 percent of the 105 women with depression also had moderate to severe codependency disorder. In addition, a codependent relationship can increase the risk factors for depression by undermining self-esteem, autonomy, energy, and motivation.

Research also shows a connection between codependency and borderline personality disorder. Difficulty with interpersonal relationships is a primary symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD). Therefore, it can be very difficult for people with BPD to understand how not to be codependent in a relationship.

How to Break Codependency Habits 

Here are a few steps for young adults struggling with how to not be codependent in a relationship.

  1. Take a hard look at the relationship. Which aspects support your well-being and which are detrimental? Not every relationship is going to be perfect. However, on balance, a relationship should support your happiness rather than detracting from it. 
  2. If the relationship is abusive, take the steps you need to leave it. That might include enlisting the support of a trusted friend or family member. Not sure whether a codependent relationship crosses over into abuse? Learn the 10 signs of an abusive relationship.
  3. If the codependent relationship is with a family member and you are invested in maintaining it, consider what might help. What boundaries could you set around it to protect your mental health? Would the other person be willing to go to therapy with you?
  4. If you’ve identified a friendship as being codependent, you might need to take a step back from that person. Nurture more positive connections and pursue new friendships. One way to handle a codependent relationship is by setting limits around the amount of time you spend with this person and what you are willing to do for them. Stick with the boundaries even if it’s difficult for you in the moment. 
  5. Practice self-compassion around your codependent behavior. Recognize that codependency disorder emerges from the natural and healthy desire to feel connected and needed. With the support of codependency counseling, you can learn how to build healthier relationships that satisfy that desire.

You may recognize that your partner contributes to you having low self-esteem. If the relationship threatens your mental and/or physical health, it may be time to leave your partner. In a case such as this, it’s important that you prioritize your well-being and focus on healthy relationships.

Tara Krueger, PsyD
National Director of Family Therapy Services

Codependency Therapy and Treatment for Codependency Disorder

Effective treatment for codependency disorder in young adults involves individual or group therapy to uncover hurt, resentment, abuse, and/or trauma arising from their family of origin. In some cases, family therapy to heal the ruptures in the parent-child relationship can be beneficial. Codependency counseling for young adults should help them to rediscover their own feelings, needs, self-esteem, and identity.

Clinical modalities like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy are powerful codependency therapy approaches. These methods can help young adults reexamine their patterns of thinking regarding relationships. When thinking shifts, behavior changes can more easily unfold. In addition, treatment includes learning techniques for enhancing positive communication and self-awareness.  

Do you relate to any of the signs of codependency in your relationships with family, friends, or a romantic partner? Is an addiction ormental illness getting worse as a result of this unhealthy dynamic? If so, please  contact  Newport Institute today. Our clinical experts will help you learn how to eliminate codependent patterns and restore your relationships by addressing the root causes of these challenges.


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Indian J Psychiatry. 2001 Jul;43(3):21924. 

Alcohol Health Res World. 1997; 21(3): 247–254.

Co-Occurring Disorders / April 22, 2022

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