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Compassion Fatigue: What Foster Parents Need to Know

Compassion fatigue is something all foster parents should know about because it is an all-too-common pitfall for those caring for people who have experienced trauma. Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, occurs when caregivers have stress-induced, negative impacts from their second-hand exposure to trauma. As a result of being overwhelmed by the trauma of others, people may gradually shut down emotionally. Those once passionate about caring for others and making a difference start to just “go through the motions.”



Though they are both stress-related, compassion fatigue is not the same as burnout, which is not caused by trauma. Compassion fatigue is the direct result of caring for others in traumatic situations that can cause physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion and numbness. It comes on gradually and is characterized by a growing apathy to situations that would ordinarily elicit compassion.


Compassion fatigue often impacts people in helping professions like nursing, social work, ministry, etc. Foster parenting is similar in that you are constantly helping others, but different in that you are not just working with people with intense needs, you are inviting traumatized children into your family. As a foster parent, you don’t get to go home and take a break from the stress at the end of your shift. This makes foster parents even more susceptible to compassion fatigue, so it is very important to be aware of it and take preventative measures.


A foster parent may notice a gradual change in attitude toward foster children. Someone who starts out with vast amounts of patience for kids who are exhibiting big behaviors because of past traumatic experiences may start getting easily frustrated by kids acting out. For example, if a child bites when he gets angry, instead of calmly helping a child express their emotions in a healthy way the foster parent may just shut down or snap at the child.


Clearly, the effects of compassion fatigue are not just detrimental to foster parents, but also to their whole families, including their foster children. In order to continue to be a loving and effective foster parent, it is important to do all you can to prevent compassion fatigue, and identify symptoms early on so you can intervene before it progresses.


Symptoms of compassion fatigue include suppressing emotions, hopelessness, apathy, emotional numbness, withdrawing from others, sleep disturbances, lack of concentration, fatigue, poor hygiene, and denial. Other red flags include self-medicating or compulsive behaviors like excessive drinking, shopping, eating, gambling, etc.


Though, as a foster parent, you don’t get the natural breaks of someone who is a caregiver as a career, you do need to make space for breaks in your life. If friends and family offer to babysit, take them up on their offers. Take respite care when you need it. Make time to do something you enjoy, even if it’s just snatching 30 minutes to read a novel or listen to music. If you need to, seek professional help and make counseling a priority in your schedule. Foster parents are busy, but we cannot let taking care of ourselves fall to the wayside, or everything and everyone else in our lives will suffer.


If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, know that you are not alone. It is important to give yourself grace, accept where you are, and seek help.


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