Codependency in childhood

Codependency in Children | Psychology Today

Codependency is the desire to control people, including significant others, colleagues, and even children. It can have detrimental effects on healthy child development. As we are seeing an emergence of codependent parenting, I was recently asked to do an interview on the issue for a national website. I have shared that interview below to help broaden the understanding of codependency and its long-term effects.

What is codependency?

Codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed from one generation to another. It is also known as "relationship addiction" because it is an emotional and behavioral state that affects a person’s ability to sustain a healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling relationship. Codependent relationships are often emotionally destructive and abusive.

Is codependency among children more prevalent now? Why?

While statistics on codependency in children are lacking, experts agree that it is becoming an increasingly more prevalent problem. Historically, there was an expectation that children become more autonomous at a much younger age.

Plus, many children suffer from anxiety disorders, which are related to both codependency and anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health disorder facing youth today as they affect approximately 13% of children. Codependency may contribute to separation anxiety and social anxiety.

In the past, codependency was associated with people who enabled alcohol abusers and drug addicts. Now, the term has taken on broader use and is associated with emotional dependency because parents play such an important role in shaping the identity of their children; it is not uncommon to see this issue at a young age. Codependency as an adult may very well in fact have its origins in childhood.

Children develop their sense of identity, identify their values, and learn how to communicate and express their needs and feelings based on parental interaction. Parents play a large role in shaping who and what their child becomes in life. It's easy to become so busy with everyday routines that true family time falls to the side.

Children need a lot of time and devotion. They need parental guidance to help them develop into strong and secure individuals. Therefore, it is essential that parents spend good quality time encouraging their child to explore life, to believe in who he/she is, and most important, to feel loved, accepted, and secure. Often codependent children lack a positive parent-child relationship. They lack confidence to succeed and many don't feel accepted. In order to counteract codependency, it's important to know the common warning signs of a codependent child:

  • low self-esteem
  • the need to be in control
  • an excessive need to please others
  • anxiety and stress
  • extreme worry
  • not feeling "good enough"
  • non-assertive communication
  • blaming self for others' problems
  • a lack of trust
  • a fear of being alone
  • intimacy problems
  • difficulty making decisions
  • chronic anger

Sadly, codependency is often a learned behavior that carries forward into adulthood. In adulthood, codependency can mask itself through anxiety, stress, and depression. It can even wreak havoc on relationships. Codependency can become a vicious cycle continuing from one generation to another. Fortunately, with the right tools, the cycle can be broken and the healing process can begin.

Are there common themes that foster codependency?

General rules within families that may cause codependency may include:

  • Don't talk about your problems or how you feel.
  • Feelings should not be expressed.
  • Be strong and "suck up" your problems.
  • Work hard, be good, seek perfection.
  • Strive to meet unrealistic expectations.
  • Do as I say not as I do.

Many families may have one or more of these unspoken rules or expectations, but these rules tend to lead to low self-esteem, poor coping skills, poor problem-solving skills, and unhealthy relationships.

What do you recommend parents do to prevent codependency among children?

The following tips can help prevent codependency and create a positive parent-child relationship:

  1. Establish a trusting relationship.
  2. Maintain healthy boundaries.
  3. Set reasonable rules.
  4. Set realistic expectations.
  5. Encourage your child to openly express his/her thoughts and feelings.
  6. Provide a nurturing and supportive environment.
  7. Allow your child to explore and be independent.
  8. Encourage problem solving. Don't rush to fix everything; rather, guide and encourage your child to find the solution.
  9. Provide positive feedback and give lots of compliments.
  10. Build self-esteem by encouraging your child to try new things, and to persevere with difficult tasks. Believe in your child's ability to achieve.
  11. Most important, build them up with words; don't tear them down.

A primary goal of parenting is to provide an environment for children to grow to be happy and independent adults. Codependent children will struggle to achieve that goal.

Treatment of codependency includes education and individual and group therapy. Parents of codependent children must learn to challenge distortions and unrealistic expectations and identify self-defeating behavior patterns.

If you need help breaking the cycle of codependency, contact your child's pediatrician or speak with a counselor. Sometimes breaking old habits is hard, but there are professionals out there who can help.

Childhood Trauma and Codependency

When we think about addiction, we associate it with alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc. There is another type of addiction, an addiction to a certain kind of relationship. An addictive relationship is also known as codependency. Psychologists coined that word when they studied relationships in families of alcoholics and drug addicts. Today, codependency is also used to describe a one-sided relationship, where one person, the helper, finds fulfillment and purpose through being needed.

What do codependent relationships look like?

Codependents lack a sense of self and don’t recognize their innate value. They often rely on relationships to provide them with a sense of identity. They only feel comfortable or worthy when they are in the role of helper, otherwise known as enabler. Their relationships are not reciprocal. They meet other people’s needs, but their own needs don’t get met. Often, they don't even realize that they have needs. 

As one person famously said, “I was always ashamed to take. So I gave. It was not a virtue. It was a disguise.”

Codependency develops in childhood as a survival skill. We all know about the fight, flight or freeze response that kicks in when we’re confronted by danger. When facing a threat, real or perceived, our bodies respond. Some of us become aggressive and fight, others choose to flee from the danger, and some of us are so overwhelmed that we shut down and freeze. .

Peter Walker, a psychotherapist and author of several books on trauma, suggests a fourth response - fawn. According to Walker, fawning is a way to escape by becoming helpful to the aggressor. Fawning, he says, is typically developed by children who experience childhood trauma.

Children who grow up in a healthy environment get their needs met. They also acquire a balanced approach towards meeting their own needs and helping others. Children who grow up with parents who don’t provide a healthy environment and don’t get their needs met, learn to distort reality.

Children want and need to be loved, so they find ways to get it. This is a survival skill. Because they are only children, they can’t understand that their parents are limited and are unable to give them love or fulfill their role as caregiver. Instead, the child thinks, “There’s something wrong with me” or “I don’t matter”. This is the type of thinking that leads to action, the action Walker classified as the fawning response to threat. 

A child’s fawning leads them to become their parent’s caregiver. They do things around the house that are beyond their age and experience, like calling for appliance repairs, making sure the parent wakes up on time for work, and giving emotional support to the parent by being their friend or confidante.  

The most troublesome outcome is that the child fails to develop a sense of self, and their identity is linked to taking care of others. When this becomes their template for all relationships, a pattern they repeat throughout their life, they are deprived of enjoying the benefits that meaningful relationships offer - the benefits we all need to thrive, feel loved and fulfill our potential. 

Cheryl asked Lacey to help her study for their math final scheduled for the next day. Lacey had been looking forward to going to her cousin’s engagement party that evening. Lacey skipped the party to help Cheryl study.

How can you judge whether you are codependent or just someone who loves to be kind and helpful? Here’s one way: If your entire identity and self-worth depends on others depending on you, then it’s time to learn healthier ways of relating to others and yourself. Read that again.

Alarm bells should ring if:

  • You can’t set boundaries or say no to anyone.

  • You need other people to notice your help, so you receive their approval.

  • You like to rush in to help people and be viewed as their savior.

  • You have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others.

  • You are uncomfortable expressing your own needs to others.

  • You need to project an image of competence at all times.

  • You feel sorry for the other person, even when they hurt you.

  • You do things for other people, even when it makes you uncomfortable.

  • You feel unanchored when you have time for yourself - don’t know what to do with it.

  • You would like to extricate yourself from a relationship but don’t because the other person relies on you

Change is not easy, never immediate, and takes work, but is possible.

Remember, fawning was a survival skill. Changing a behavior like that is hard because you’re asking yourself to give up something that kept you safe. But, you‘re not in danger anymore. 

How do we change our behavior? 

One way is to replace it with another behavior. 

Replace the unhealthy relationship you have with yourself (not valuing yourself, not meeting your own needs) with a healthy one. Here’s how - fair warning: be prepared to have uncomfortable feelings. 

5 Steps to Start Your Journey
  • Learn to accept that others will be angry or disappointed with you. This is counterintuitive for you. It will be stressful when other people let you know that they are disappointed in you. Stop believing that you are responsible for their feelings. You are not; they are. This will distress you, but learn to tolerate it.

  • Maintain Boundaries. A boundary is identifying what you can or cannot do for someone else. For example, saying “I won’t be able to watch your children for you next week” is setting boundaries. Another way would be to ask for something. An example of that would be, “When you want me to drive you somewhere, please don’t wait for the last minute to ask.”

  • Identify your feelings instead of going numb. Numbness is not the absence of feelings. Numbness is the inability to identify, express and understand your feelings and then allow them to move through you.

  • Learn how to care for yourself. You’ve been so consumed by others; you’ve neglected your own care.

  • Recognize that it’s okay to feel afraid. Being a helper provided safety. Giving that up feels scary. That’s to be expected. However, your journey will lead you to a place that is truly safe - a place where you will be your true self.

Learn New Skills

When you have healthy boundaries, and a stronger sense of yourself, you will attract new people into your life - people who have a healthy approach to relationships. This will expand and reinforce your desire for healthy relationships. Becoming codependent developed when you were in an unsafe relationship, therefore, being in safe relationships is an important part of recovery.

Learning new skills takes practice. Here are some ways to support yourself. 

People will continue to ask you to do things for them. Previously, your automatic response was to agree. Using these strategies will help you delay your response and give you time to think. Consider this a cheat sheet and memorize it. 

  1. When asked to do something for someone else, say, “Let me get back to you on that.”

  2. Start with saying no to the things that are easier to say no to. For example, when the server asks if you are ready to order yet, say no. If your friend calls and asks if you can talk now, say no. If your child asks you to buy them a chachka at the store, say no (Okay, that wasn't an easy one!)

  3. Say “I don't” instead of “I can't”. Say “I don't want to go out today” versus “I can’t go out today”.

  4. Realize that saying no to one thing means saying yes to something else. In this case, you are saying yes to a healthier you.

  5. Remember that you can’t please everyone. To borrow an idea from Abraham Lincoln, you can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Getting More Help and Support

Learning new ways to relate to yourself and to others is complicated. When you were a child, you had no options, and you did what you needed to do to survive. Now, you’re an adult and can make changes so that your relationships have a reciprocal quality to them. There is nothing wrong with you and you’re no longer that scared child who needed to prove her worth by taking action.

Some people can do this on their own, but many people need help, guidance and support. By now, you know what I will say next - there’s no shame in that.  

Above all,  be kind to yourself.

Page #1Michelle HalleCodependency, Childhood Trauma1 Comment


Codependent parenting - signs and tips on how to deal with it

Not many people know the term codependent parenting. With this form of parenting, the parent appears to selflessly love and care for their children, however, in reality, the parent can be overly sensitive to the child's moods and create unhealthy relationship dynamics that can harm their children in the long run.

Who are co-dependent parents? nine0008

Codependency is often described in the context of addiction. Although substance abuse is not always common among codependent people, it can be characterized as relationship addiction. These people are highly emotionally dependent on the other person and seek constant validation or set the tone for their well-being relative to the other person's well-being. It can also happen between a child and a parent when the parent becomes psychologically and emotionally dependent on the child. nine0003

Co-dependent parents rely heavily on their children for self-esteem, happiness, and mental stability, which can cause them to become overly controlling. When they seem to be losing control or the child is behaving against their will, they may lash out and sometimes even have a severe breakdown. In such cases, the child will be forced to bear a heavy burden and experience severe emotional upheaval, since the happiness of the co-dependent parent is in his hands. Ultimately, they may form an unhealthy attachment to their child and in some ways subtly demand feelings of love and devotion, which can become harmful. Codependent parenting is the result of past relationships not being fulfilled in the life of parents who try to make up for it by becoming dependent on the child. nine0003

What are the characteristics of a co-dependent parent?

1. They are easily overwhelmed by the child's emotions.

Because codependent parents rely on their children, their emotions can also be determined by their children's emotions. A codependent parent can easily become upset if their child becomes sad, angry, or withdrawn. This makes it difficult for them to set boundaries with their children and try to loosen the restrictions in order to control their own anxiety and peace of mind. nine0003

2. They have a need to be in control.

Because their sense of self and well-being depend so much on their relationship with the child, they tend to push their boundaries to gain control over the child's life. Any event or discourse that causes discomfort to the child is immediately picked up by the parents, which leads to attempts to take control of the situation. They will stop at nothing to regain control and relax when things are going their way. nine0003

3. They enjoy playing the victim.

Codependent parents often try to compensate for their shortcomings in life and childhood by playing the victim. They can tell stories about how disadvantaged they were in order to evoke sympathy and push the child to do what they would like to do. For example, a codependent parent may encourage their children to take up theater or sports even if the children are not interested.

4. They may ignore other relationships. nine0008

Co-dependent parents will push other relationships aside for fear that it might interfere with their relationship with their children. This means that they push the spouse aside, and the marriage fades into the background. On the other hand, they may also try to rip the child away from his friends and try to be their best friend.

5. They feel they are always right.

Codependent parents tend to think they are never wrong. They also never apologize or take responsibility for the situation they created because admitting wrongdoing would undermine their social image. They see the disagreement as a challenge to their dominance and feel threatened by the child's perceived rebellion. Many adult children usually perceive this as talking to a stone wall. In many cases, for the same reason, children leave the choice of college or institute to their parents. nine0003

6. They tend to use guilt as a weapon.

Codependent parents often use silent treatment and passive-aggressive tactics to get their children to comply. The classic example is the parent who complains that their adult child doesn't visit often. When the child promises to visit more often, the parent replies, "You don't have to visit if you don't feel like it" in order to remain a victim.

Impact of parental codependency on children

Relationships with codependents can be emotionally draining, at times abusive and ultimately destructive. Codependent parent-child relationships can have a long-term negative impact on a child in terms of mental health, emotional intelligence, and adult relationships.

Parents and caregivers play a critical role in the mental and emotional development of children as children learn their behavior and develop as individuals. One of the effects of being a codependent parent is that children learn and imitate codependent behavior in every way they have as adults. Feelings of inadequacy and insecurity can quickly become part of their nature and affect them mentally and emotionally. Although a certain level of parental control is normal and even necessary, codependent parents take it to the extreme because they always want to control their child's life, regulate their worries and anxieties. If the child eventually understands what codependency is, he may sympathize with the parent or begin to feel resentment. nine0003

Co-Dependency Parenting Tips

1. Seek professional help.

If you can't solve your codependency problem or don't know where to start, the best option is to find a psychologist. Therapy sessions can help you understand or even resolve past relationship problems and reduce your addiction as a result.

2. Develop respectful and open communication.

If you have a habit of lashing out at your children when things don't go your way, it's important to learn how to maintain your composure even when you feel insecure. Use open communication with honesty and without manipulating your children to eliminate explosive moments. nine0003

3. Communicate positive intentions.

Make it a habit to let your children know that their value is not that they always please you or others. They need to know that love and respect are mutual and unconditional. Apologize if you overstep the bounds and make amends so you don't repeat your abusive behavior.

4. Avoid micromanaging.

While it may be tempting to interfere in your children's affairs, give them the freedom and opportunity to solve their problems, make mistakes, and learn from them in an age appropriate manner. Manage your anxiety and make it a habit to let go of trivial things. nine0003

5. Focus on taking care of yourself.

Meet your own emotional needs in healthy ways and spend time taking care of yourself and building self-esteem instead of relying on your child for everything. Engage in positive self-talk and activities that expand your perspective.

Codependent parenting can leave children with permanent emotional scars and affect their relationships as adults. Codependents can do better by seeking professional help on how to better manage themselves and not burden their children with responsibility for their well-being. nine0003

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how codependence is formed and why it interferes with building personal boundaries — Knife

Where does “I” begin and end?

According to Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, human babies are born "premature".

Foals try to get up half an hour after birth, and after an hour or two they usually succeed. Newborn baboons are attached to the wool of the mother, who, together with them, jumps from branch to branch. Orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees can feed on mother's milk for several years, the treatment of offspring in these primates is generally similar to that of humans. The difference is that their cubs adapt to life early - they walk, run, jump and show other activities. nine0003

The human infant is in a state of almost complete helplessness for the first year and a half. This is a sign of "prematurity" according to Leakey. The neck does not have the proper tone - it takes several months to start confidently "holding the head". Muscles and joints are not fully formed, and this process continues outside the womb - it takes time and diligence to learn to sit-stand-move.

"Premature" birth - evolutionary adaptation to new circumstances. Homo erectus, which stood up, had a smaller pelvis, so a more developed and larger fetus simply would not have passed through it, the scientist believes. nine0003

If this theory is transferred to the context of the study of the human psyche and the stages of its development, we can draw an analogy with "social pregnancy".

A person learns not only to understand speech and communicate with others, but also to draw boundaries between himself, the world and other people. At first glance, this seems self-evident: everyone knows where "I" ends and something else begins. And in fact - no. Few people know.

So, at any rate, psychologists Berry and Janey Weinhold believe. In the book Breaking Free From Codependency, they write:

“Approximately 98% of Americans [experience suggests that this applies to residents of other countries. - Approx. ed.] suffer from serious disorders, which today are called codependency. Estimates show that less than 1% of these people are more or less aware of the effects of codependency, but few of them take any action to eliminate these effects.

Main symptoms of codependency:

  • the feeling of being trapped in a humiliating, controlling relationship,
  • need for ongoing approval and support,
  • feeling powerless to change anything in a destructive relationship,
  • need for alcohol, food, work, sex, or any other external stimulus to distract from one's experiences,
  • uncertainty of psychological boundaries…”

Codependency - like any dependence in general (on a person, substance, process / state) - indicates the immaturity of the individual. "Social birth" may drag on for many years, or it may never happen at all. A person will leave this world without being born. And this is not only a metaphor, but also a fact of everyday life. This facticity can be interpreted as "lack", "internal emptiness", etc. - in the ordinary vocabulary there are many words to describe the state, whose name is codependency. nine0003

More often this word is used when talking about codependent families of alcoholics/drug addicts. Fair enough, but these cases are a particular manifestation of the general order.

See also:

Co-dependent childhood: how do children live whose parents cannot get rid of addiction to drugs or alcohol

Yes, and the medical approach to the problem of codependency, according to spouses-psychologists, involves working with "symptoms", and not searching for its causes:

“The worst thing is… that the medical community (including most therapists) usually treats codependency as a primary disease… Your doctor or therapist will likely treat it as permanent, hereditary, progressive, and possibly even incurable. ” nine0003

How codependency is formed

The cause of codependency is the incompleteness of establishing psychological autonomy, one of the most important stages in the development of the psyche.

The Hungarian psychiatrist-clinician Margaret Mahler, co-authored with her colleagues Fred Pine and Annie Bergman, emphasizes:

“The biological birth of the human infant and the psychological birth of the individual do not coincide in time. The first is a bright, observable and well-defined event, the second is a slowly unfolding intrapsychic process. nine0003

We view psychological birth as a process of separation-individuation: the establishment of a sense of one's own separateness and the formation of a relationship with the real world, especially in terms of experience associated with one's own body and with the main representative of the surrounding world - the primary object of love. Like any mental process, separation-individuation affects the entire life cycle…”

Maybe interesting:

I protest! How to distinguish a prolonged teenage rebellion from true independence

Based on this theory, Berry and Janey Weinhold speak of four stages in the development of the human psyche: This is achieved through the opposite process of separation - complete merging with the parent figure. At this stage, codependency is normative. Moreover, it is a prerequisite for further development - the transition to the next stages. nine0003

Age of normative codependency — from 0 to ~ 3 years (this is individual, more often this stage is not completed at all, as we will discuss below). The child during this period should “reflex” something like this:

“I can develop and I have the right to do so - the world is safe. The world is good to me, and I can claim to have my needs met” [summary of the experience of codependent fusion. - Approx. ed.].

“The part of the world that satisfies my needs is permanent. I can't worry about it. I can count on the world not to disappear. I can count on not being in danger of death. Now everything is fine with me, and there is no reason why something can change. I receive and will receive exactly as many benefits as I need for life. That part of the world on which I depend is predictable and reliable” [the result of the experience of forming the constancy of objects. - Approx. ed.]. nine0003

At the stage of co-dependence, an idea is formed:

“I am ok. The world is ok."

If the child is convinced that everything is in order with the world as a whole, the basis for personal boundaries has been laid and one can begin to outline them. This is not a quick process (spoiler: few succeed, that's the trouble). The counter-dependent stage begins - the separation stage.

Counterdependence: Three-year-olds start and... don't win

Berry and Jane Weinhold have dedicated a separate book to this stage, "Flight from Intimacy." nine0003

During counterdependence, the child encounters foreign boundaries for the first time. On the one hand, he begins to declare his desires, on the other hand, he discovers that they may not coincide with those of his parents:

- Mom, I want candy!
- I'll give you candy only after the soup.
- ...

- Mom, give me this thing!
- This is my thing. I don't want her to be taken without my permission.
- ...

The child first encounters a limitation of his abilities. He rarely likes it, subjectively the situation is perceived as "unfair", "bad". The main discovery at this stage: in a world that is ok, not everything is possible for a child. With this, he does not immediately agree, passing over and over again through the typical stages of denial-anger-bargaining-depression-humility. nine0003

- Mom, give me candy!
- Candy after soup.
- No, give it anyway! ( negation )
- After the soup.
- No, give it! Give now! (knocks the spoon on the table - anger ).
- After the soup...
- Well, at least a small one, please... Well, or half a candy? ( auction )
- After the soup.
- You're bad! And evil! ( tears )
- Dear ... I'll give you candy after the soup. Promise.
- Okay. Come on soup. ( humility ).

This cycle can be repeated many times and in a variety of situations - just as long as the child's psyche needs to learn the fact that the mother has personal boundaries, beyond which she does not let him go.

"I won't give my thing."
"Can't play with you right now."
"I need to leave for a while, I'm busy right now."
"Thanks, I don't want a cake."

When a child learns this, he begins to copy the behavior of his mother: he begins to draw the boundaries of acceptable treatment with him - he learns to say "no". The reason for the notorious "crisis of three years" is in the attempts of the future personality to draw its own boundaries, to become independent - "to stand on its own", without support. nine0003

But it's not like that, guys

If, at the stage of counterdependence, the mother does not accept the child's boundaries/feelings and criticizes them, then a false message is assimilated:

"It is not normal to have personal boundaries."

If a parent blackmails and manipulates a child (for example, using his or her state of health - “if you behave badly, I will get upset, get sick and die”), the following message is learned:

“Having your own boundaries is deadly for a mother” [ in perspective - for any other person. - Approx. ed.]. nine0003

If the child encounters the mother's boundaries, but his personal boundaries are ignored, the future personality is formed according to the victim type :

"The world can use me."

If he encounters the absence of mother's boundaries and recognition of his own, then his personality is formed according to aggressive type :

"The world owes me."

If parents are inconsistent and then recognize / draw boundaries, then they are ignored - the child learns two ambivalent messages. Both installations will work in his life, depending on the circumstances. nine0003

In each of these options, the completion of counter-dependence and psychological separation is impossible. And the child receives clear permanent boundaries of personality only after the completion of this stage. Their formation is a condition for the transition to the next stage - the stage of independence .

When two independent individuals meet and realize that they need each other, this is interdependence . This stage is characterized by relationships in which partners have a clear idea of ​​where their “I” begins and ends, do not avoid responsibility for their actions, words and desires, and are not afraid to express them. They are ok. Well, or almost everything (because real/ideal is a classic categorical opposition: what is real is not ideal, and what is ideal cannot exist in reality). nine0003

They'll say it doesn't happen. Exactly - it doesn't happen. Almost.

According to Berry and Jane Weinhold, a small minority become independent. The majority "freeze" either at the co-dependent stage (remaining emotionally and empathically at the level of about a three-year-old child) or at the counter-dependent stage ("strong" and "successful" choose the tactics of introversion and refuse everything that seems to them "caress", "care "and "close relationships" - because the experience of facing all this was very traumatic). nine0003

It is to be hoped that the situation has now changed, because the first edition of the book of psychologists who want to "save the world" (and their text reads precisely such ambitions) was published in 1989. A Russian translation of Liberation from Codependency was published in 2002, and Escape from Intimacy was published in 2011. I think there are still chances...

And if you leave the irony, it's hard not to agree that:

“Our whole culture can be called codependent... All the main institutions of our society are based on dependent behavior. The social structure that we have created can indeed remain codependent if such behavior continues in the future in the majority of the population. nine0003

The modern history of most societies thus constructed shows that certain groups are superior to others. For example, men are superior to women, and management personnel are superior to performers. The presence of a stronger group that controls resources creates the prerequisites for the emergence and maintenance of co-dependent relationships.

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