Codependency in Adoption/Foster Care

Sandra Flach, of the Orphans No More Podcast, joins me again this week for the Positive Adoption Podcast series on the book Five Things: A Tiny Handbook for Foster/Adoptive Families. We’re continuing our series – Five Things Your Adopted/Foster Child Would Like To Tell You. Codependency with our kiddos can keep us stuck in a chaotic cycle. Codependency can overwhelm us and make us feel as if we are drowning. If you feel as if you live there (I did), grab a cup of coffee and join us for some encouragement!

Sandra and I continue our series – Five Things Your Adopted/Foster Child Would Like to Tell You with a chat about codependency.

Introduction to Codependency

I stood in front of the mirror, brushing my hair  before heading off to an appointment with my counselor. Thoughts of the day’s events wrestled in my head. I rehashed my reactions to youngest son’s behavior. My shoulders tensed and my jaw set. I set the brush down, pulled my hair with both hands and screamed  Get out of my head! I felt raw. And as if I weren’t a person any more, but as if I were a robot reacting to every move my son made. I was controlled by his mood, his defiance sunk me into a depression, it washed over me like a dark cloud. When I awoke in the morning, my first thought was, “What is  he going to do today and how can I make sure he has a ‘good’ day?” I relayed this info to my counselor.

“You’re codependent,”my counselor said.

codependent-of or relating to a relationship in which one person is physically or psychologically addicted, as to alcohol or gambling, and the other person is psychologically dependent on the first in an unhealthy way. (

Children who have experienced trauma have a knack for making us adults feel out of control. They do know how to push our buttons. They seem to own a special button locating radar. Once they find the button, they push it mercilessly. And we adults, like puppets on a string flail around, flopping from hot to cold at their will.

This brings me to the fourth thing your adopted child would like to tell you:

If you feel what I feel all the time, we will become codependent and I will rule your emotions like an out-of-control terrorist.

When we subject ourselves to this control, we become codependent. We are happy if our child is. Subdued if he is angry. Emotionally unstable if he is and we find ourselves going out of our way to create a pseudo perfect environment so the child will not _____________ (fill in the blank). This is the same dance the alcoholic and the codependent spouse or family member jitterbug. The codependent family member feels as if it is her responsibility to keep the environment perfect and that it is her fault if the alcoholic or drug abuser becomes abusive or has other repercussions.. She feels totally responsible for someone else’s everything. She lacks power because she gives all her power to the alcoholic/drug abuser.

What does this look like with a child? See my intro, I couldn’t even brush my hair without thinking about him. He filled my thoughts every waking moment. I spent my thoughts either worrying about his reactions or planning a new strategy for helping him. Planning, scheduling, those are great tools, but I wasn’t using them as tools in this instance. I was striving. The stress of raising this hurt child combined with the stress of everyday living sent me headlong into a deep depression.

I must say, I slipped into the pattern of codependency pretty easily, I came from an alcoholic family. I had gotten out of old patterns, but I slid right back into them before I noticed.

What can you do to break the habit of codependency?

A. Be a separate person.

This sounds so basic. So simple. It’s not. Any of you raising  children from hard places  know this. Any day can be like riding a tidal wave and surviving a hurricane and tornado all in one. It might take you pulling your hair in front of a mirror and a counselor telling you to take back your power (your ability to act independently).

If your child has a meltdown because he doesn’t want to eat dinner when you do, do a chore, go to the store, do his school work, etc., then give the child a consequence. Don’t react to the behavior after the consequence and make the choice to keep your power. Do whatever it was that you were going to do without the child controlling you. Make the cookies. Eat the ice cream. Go to the store.If you have  to cancel a trip because of the child’s behavior, sit down and read a book. Call a friend and talk about something that has nothing to do with the child and let him hear you. Work in your garden. Paint a picture. Write a story or do  whatever it is that makes you ….you. You are a person with gifts and talents. Use them in the middle of raising children. Don’t wait to be a person.

B. Take a vacation from guilt.

It’s easy to get stuck in the guilt trap. Our hurt children can keep us there. Remember, “You are not responsible for the trauma that happened to me before I came into your family, but I will act like it”. We have the power to release ourselves from the trap. So, take a vacation from the guilt. Stop thinking, if I would have done something differently, he would have behaved differently. If I would have stuck to the schedule, if I would have gotten up earlier, …..If. If. If. Some of these things may be true and we learn from our mistakes, we don’t need to wear them like a garment. If you feel as if you messed up, confess and move on. Don’t wear it.

Remember, you are not responsible for the way your child reacts, you are only responsible for yourself. Your reaction. Your giving of the consequence. So, take my advice, leave the guilt garment behind.

C.  Be responsible for yourself.

Don’t skip this one!  One thing I hear from adoptive parents is they are worn to a frazzle. Take care of yourself.

One week, after a long week in a house full of meltdowns, my youngest daughter and I needed a break. We packed up and went to a hotel near some outlets. We walked ourselves tired in the hotel gym and swam in the pool. We ended the night soaking in the hot tub. The next morning, we hit the outlets and went home later that afternoon, tired, but refreshed.

Self-care is under-rated. Adoptive parents can suffer from codependent behaviors and compassion fatigue. We feel what our children feel. We tend to look at the bigger scope of things and may often over think things, bearing more than needs to be carried. For instance, when we hand an ice cream cone to a six-year-old, we may be thinking of his past, his time in the institution without ice cream, etc. The child may be thinking, this ice cream is good.

Take care of yourself. Take breaks. Eat food. Drink water. Exercise. Take a weekend away. Put on your own oxygen mask first.

Are you an adoptive/foster parent?

Do you often feel alone in your journey? As if NO ONE else knows what’s going on in your home?

Because, which  of us stands on the sidelines of the soccer field and says to the neighboring Moms, “How are you coping with the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in your child?” or “Is your child finally attaching or what?”  “How are those adoption/foster classes going?” No.The truth is most adoptive parents don’t say a word about what they are dealing with on a regular basis. They just try to blend in and look normal. How do I know? I am one of them.This is a great handbook to encourage you and let you know, you are not alone. Plus, it’s full of tips, real-life stories, and some great resources. Grab your free copy today.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s