A rather long pre-amble – I have been working on this post for a while (due to my own life balancing act and working out the best way to tackle such a big area). Being able to write this post meant I had to make sure I was tending to my own stress red flags and ensuring I was prioritising myself. This may sound slightly selfish and I did frame this differently in earlier drafts. Yes, I have been practicing prioritising me. The more I thought about this, the more obvious it became. One of the biggest risks for caregivers is consistently prioritising everyone and everything else over ourselves. So that was my own ‘aha moment’.
When we then focus the lens on the impact on the child or children we are caring for: IF WE DON’T TEND TO OURSELVES AND OUR OWN NEEDS WELL, WE WILL BECOME DEPLETED. WHEN WE ARE DEPLETED, THE RISK OF CHILDREN WITH TRAUMA BEING TRIGGERED INCREASES AND THIS CAN CREATE A CYCLE THAT EFFECTS EVERYONE IN YOUR HOME.
My belief is that if we combine:
- looking after ourselves with
- evidence based consistent trauma informed parenting and
- ensuring an active network of support for ourselves and the children (including supporting safe connections to family), we will be ensuring children in care do feel cared for, are safe, healing and able to achieve what they hope for as adults.
How often in our lives do we just ‘march on’ during periods of sustained stress ? We may know things aren’t going well but for whatever reasons the stress keeps building and we keep going. In an effort to march on, we may numb our feelings, pretend everything is fine, binge on (insert numerous options here), block people out, be short tempered, blame, get sick, shame, withdraw and so on.
During my research phase, I noticed plenty of research about professional paid workers and the impact of compassion fatigue, vicarious and secondary trauma and subsequent burnout. All of which could be applied to foster, relative and kin carers. I also noticed a lot of thought has been given to carers of people with disability or caring for elders but little in relation to caring for children with trauma. I am going to use the language of caregiver stress and burnout as it fits for foster, relative/kin carers as well and to be honest, is easier to digest.
So what is caregiver stress?
This is stress that is specific to your role as a carer and relates to the cumulative toll of the caring role.
i think it is fair to say that choosing to be a foster carer means we enter a complex dynamic system which works well in some areas and not others.
For foster carers, some key areas that can may cause you stress include:
- being under-prepared and under-supported in the initial stages of a placement starting
- agencies not being transparent about a child’s needs prior to accepting a placement
- feeling like the foster role was not fairly represented upfront
- struggling with the child’s trauma behaviors or additional needs
- caseworkers constantly changing and having to ‘start again’ regularly
- fractious working relationships with agency staff
- hoping that children will immediately feel safe because they are in a safe home environment (healing from trauma takes time)
- struggling when children have trauma behaviors years after being in your care (eg teens and trauma)
- changing expectations for foster carers
- feeling misunderstood when you try to share/explain
- overall feeling under-supported and under-valued by your agency
This occurs only if we have missed the opportunity to activate an approach to life that includes caring about our own well-being. Burnout builds up over time so hopefully you have plenty of opportunities to address the stress areas earlier.
Some signs that you may be at risk of burnout are:
- avoiding other people
- feeling depressed
- feeling like you are not in control of your life
- losing interest in things you usually enjoy
- neglecting your own needs and health
A moment of sharing… I know I have been on the cusp of burnout in the past and I didn’t seek help. I also want to premise that it wasn’t JUST because I was a foster carer. It was because life got messy all of a sudden (after a period of sustained stress) and being a carer of a child with trauma, attachment disorder and ASD meant my ability to fall apart, take a break etc was limited. So I marched on. I got up every morning and treated it like a new day. I was having daily panic attacks but I kept going. I knew what I couldn’t do but I am not sure I really knew what I could do. That is strange to write as a reasonably emotionally intelligent woman but the added dynamic of foster carer definitely made it harder to know if it was ok to be falling apart. I was petrified of being vulnerable and the impact that would have on my foster daughter!
Getting to the point of burnout could result in significant impacts on our health, possibly your relationships and potentially impact your capacity to be a carer and work. It really is worth getting on the front foot and avoiding reaching this point.
If you feel you are close to this point or someone has shared they are worried you are, please seek help. If it is that serious then reach out to your state or territory foster care support, seek medical support for a mental health care plan, ask for some respite (preferably with someone the child or children already know) and access your sick leave. Find ways to reach out for help and to allow yourself to slow down. I really hope you can be brave and let your agency know you are struggling and you want help. Don’t wait until it is too late.
If you have reached a point of relinquishing care, please do aim to plan for a transition for the child and find a way to maintain connection. The experience of moving around in care tells a child they are not wanted.
Getting on the front foot – creating a plan to care for ourselves first
If we can ‘catch ourselves’ at a point of ongoing stress, we can avoid burnout.
Better still, if we put a plan in place that focuses on how we care for ourselves first, we will have more resilience during the more stressful times to move through this as situational stress and avoid cumulative stress and eventually burnout.
I wish all foster agencies were good at taking the time to help us navigate this space, and I am sure some do, but generally we get squeezed into the carer review process (when that is occurring).
For me, I first looked at what things I actually like to do that fill up my own wellbeing cup. Each list will look different and some examples are:
- take a break from social media
- carving out time to read a fiction book
- go for a walk out in nature
- joining a team or group
- connect with other caregivers
- phone a friend
- any form of exercise
- journal writing
- see a movie
The one thing in common for all the examples are they will all relate to you and ideally have nothing to do with completing chores, parenting, working etc.
I have developed a free coaching tool to help you to think about how you can get on the front foot and create your own balance. Please email me Kiera@carer-hub.com if you would like a free copy of the coaching tool ‘CARING FOR MYSELF AND CARING FOR OTHERS’.
Thank you for Caring!
Secondary trauma causing stress among foster carers, according to new study | Nottingham Trent University
What a wonderful courageous post Kiers! I feel your strength and vulnerability and… RESPECT gal pal. You are an extraordinary woman!
Eleonora De Michele Director Eleonora De Michele Consultancy Sydney AUSTRALIA M: +61 419 469136 E: email@example.com
I acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land I work on as the first people of this country and I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
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