Does My Adult Child Have Dependent Personality Disorder? Recognizing the Symptoms and Getting Help

Is your adult child just clingy, or is there something deeper going on? By learning to recognize dependent personality disorder symptoms, you can help determine if your loved one is struggling with this difficult condition and understand why it so commonly occurs alongside other mental health disorders. If you do think your adult child has dependent personality disorder, it is important to seek the guidance of experienced professionals as soon as possible for effective treatment.

Having a close relationship with your adult child is something most parents strive for, and something Jeanette thought she had. “Some of my friends had their kids go off to college and then barely heard from them,” she says. “But Jonathan wasn’t like that. At first, I felt very lucky about that.” Indeed, while his classmates went out on weekends, Jonathan preferred to drive home to his parents’ house. He talked to them about school, asking for their opinions on his decisions both big and small, inviting them to accompany him on even the most mundane errands. “It seemed a little over the top, but I thought, ‘This will end soon, I should cherish this time. Before long he will be out in the world on his own and I’ll miss this,’” Jeanette remembers. “I thought maybe he was just anxious about making the transition to adulthood. But it didn’t end. In fact, it became more intense.”

Despite graduating with a good job lined up, Jonathan decided to move home after college rather than get his own apartment. While his friends reveled in their newfound independence, Jonathan seemed unsure of how to wield his. “He was constantly asking for our input on, well, everything. He seemed lost without us, terrified we would disapprove of him, completely lost on his own,” Jeanette says. “At that point, it was clear that it was more than normal anxiety about early adulthood or simply valuing our opinions. He seemed to lack an inner compass to guide him toward an independent life.” And Jeanette was right; it was something more.

Jonathan suffered from dependent personality disorder, which affects an estimated 0.5-0.6% of the population and can have a devastating impacting on emotional well-being and behavioral health. If you are concerned that your own child may be struggling with this painful condition, it’s important to learn more about dependent personality disorder symptoms to help you identify the cause of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Recognizing Dependent Personality Disorder Symptoms

Human are innately social beings and we depend on social connections in order to thrive. In fact, research confirms again and again that our relationships with others have a significant impact on our psychological and even our physical wellness, demonstrating just how reliant we are on social interactions to navigate the world around us in healthy ways. This reliance continues throughout life, from our most formative experiences of attachment through our bonds with partners, family, and friends in adulthood.

However, dependent personality disorder goes beyond a healthy desire for social connection. Instead, it arises out of an insatiable need to be cared for in developmentally inappropriate ways and an overwhelming fear of abandonment or rejection. This typically manifests in the following symptoms:

  • Extreme passivity: People with dependent personality disorder tend to display passive behavior, wanting others to take charge in any situation. This also leads to lack of initiative; they may have trouble starting tasks without someone else leading the way.
  • Inability to make decisions: Any decision, large or small, can feel overwhelming to someone with dependent personality disorder, as they lack confidence in their own judgment and abilities. As a result, they may seek constant advice and reassurance regarding even the most mundane choices.
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism: People with dependent personality disorder are extremely sensitive to criticism and may perceive it as “proof of their worthlessness.”
  • Difficulty expressing disagreement: Dependent personality disorder can cause your loved one to lose trust in their own decisions, perceptions, and emotions and seek the guidance of others in most aspects of life. However, in cases where they do disagree with others, they are often reluctant to express that disagreement for fear of rejection or abandonment.
  • Pessimism and low self-esteem: People who struggle with dependent personality disorder typically have low self-esteem, a pessimistic outlook on life, and rely on the approval of others for validation. They do not believe they are capable of caring for themselves or living an autonomous life.
  • Fear of being alone: Dependent personality disorder involves “a paralyzing fear of loneliness; people with the disorder are irrationally terrified of being left to care for themselves.” As such, they are often irrationally preoccupied with fears of being alone and even temporarily being alone can be overwhelming, creating extreme separation anxiety. This fear also makes people with this condition excessively clingy and prone to quickly seeking out new relationships when a previous relationship has ended.
  • Tolerates unpleasant tasks or poor treatment: Low self-esteem, fear of rejection, and intense fear of being alone cause your child to go to great lengths to receive care from others. As a result, they may agree to unpleasant tasks, tolerate mistreatment, or put up with abuse in order to fulfill their need to be cared for.

People with dependent personality disorder may primarily attach to one person or their symptoms may manifest in a variety of interpersonal relationships. Often, the disorder manifests particularly strongly in romantic partnerships, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case; the primary object of dependence can be virtually anyone, including parents. It is also important to note that while dependent personality disorder is typically associated with passivity, it may cause your loved one to act out with aggression if their need for care is not met, in some cases even resulting in abusive or violent behaviors.

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The Relationship With Other Mental Illnesses

While dependent personality disorder can be painful and debilitating and of itself, people with the condition are also at heightened risk for other mental health disorders that further exacerbate suffering and complicate recovery. As explained in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, “Personality has been compared loosely to the immune system and psychiatric disorders to other medical illness. Just as a poorly functioning immune system opens the door for many diseases, so may dependent personality.” Often, people with dependent personality disorder struggle with co-occurring depression or anxiety, including social anxiety disorder or social phobia, which may both result from and fuel the personality disorder. They may also experience somatoform disorders, or “unexplained physical symptoms with an emotional basis.” Such physical symptoms may be very real, but they can unfortunately also be used to fuel dependent personality disorder further by eliciting sympathy and caretaking that feed into the dependent desire.

Seeking Treatment for Dependent Personality Disorder

If you believe your adult child is struggling with dependent personality disorder, professional treatment is essential to healing. This treatment must begin with in-depth diagnostic assessment in order to fully understand your child’s dependent personality disorder symptom, identify any co-occurring conditions, and create a comprehensive treatment plan. Your own participation may be invaluable to this process, as you can provide insights your child may not be able to recognize themselves.

While outpatient care may be appropriate for some with dependent personality disorder, others will require care in a residential setting, particularly in complex cases that include the presence of a co-occurring mental health disorder. In these environments, your adult child will be able to participate in a broad range of therapies designed to help them identify the roots of their disorder and take meaningful steps toward a healthier self-image, stronger coping skills, enhanced social skills, and increased self-determination. With the support of compassionate clinicians and peers, they will be able to work through their anxieties, disrupt harmful beliefs, and hone the inner resources they need to improve distress tolerance and confidence in their abilities as they gain ever-greater autonomy. Long-term programs with a strong focus on independent living are often the best option, as they will allow your loved one to gradually transition toward self-reliance.

In order for treatment to be successful, however, it is imperative that your adult child receives care within a program that recognizes the unique challenges presented by dependent personality disorder. People with this condition may be very submissive and seek out inordinate amounts of reassurance from their therapists or even other clients, using the therapeutic process to fuel their dependent desires rather than break free from them. As such, clinicians must have the experience and training necessary to establish appropriate boundaries and a productive therapeutic alliance that resists replication of dependency. They must also work closely with you to help you orient your own relationship with your child toward a healthier dynamic and disrupt damaging interpersonal patterns both during and after treatment. In fact, family therapy must be a central component of the treatment process in order to ensure true healing.

Dependent personality disorder can be difficult to both experience and witness, but with the right supports your loved one can make meaningful steps toward recovery. Along the way, your child can learn to recognize their own unique talents and gifts, cultivating a new sense of direction and purpose as they grow emotionally. By helping them begin this transformative journey, you can help them create a life that is more joyful and fulfilling for your entire family.

BrightQuest offers long-term residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved start the journey toward healing.