Take care of yourself. We hear that so often, but it is often an impossible task if you have a compassion for children who have survived abuse, neglect or abandonment. We consider it a calling to step up and self-sacrifice. No one is likely to convince you that there must be time for you, but let us try.
It is important to develop strategies that will help you meet your calling and commitment to protect and nurture children while also ensuring your own safety and satisfaction in knowing your work is making a difference. Setting limits that honor your commitment will allow you to continue protecting and nurturing children while protecting you and your family.
"The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet." - Dr. Naomi Rachel Remen
The National Foster Parent Association believes that a balance of respect and concern between parents and their workers can lead to improved compassion satisfaction for everyone and more nurturing and safe family homes for children.
When parents and even workers in foster care assess their fatigue levels they may more clearly understand what changes are necessary to raise their levels of compassion satisfaction.
Let’s start with a very simple self assessment. No scoring is necessary - we just want you to be aware of the physical, mental and emotional you may experience on your compassion journey.
Simple Self-Assessment for Recognizing Compassion Fatigue
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Worry that you are not doing enough.
- Diminished joyin things that you used to enjoy.
- Blaming others for difficulties you are experiencing.
- Feeling hopeless for the traumatized person.
- Dreaming about the traumatized person’s experiences.
- Physical/mental exhaustion.
- Rejecting intimacy.
- Difficulty communicating.
- Low self-image.
- Detachment from your loved ones.
- Lack of flexibility.
- Memory difficulties.
"Sometimes you don't realize you're actually drowning when you're trying to be everyone else's anchor." -Joy of Mom
These are symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) or Vicarious Trauma. This condition is a state of tension and preoccupation of the stories and trauma experiences described by those you are caring for in your daily life or work. Please don’t just put this aside as something you don’t have time to attend to … your self-care matters to the people you love. You, already, know they count on you. It is best to come to an understanding of why and how to fit self-care into your daily regimen without sacrificing the care you are committed to providing to those you love.
Once people begin experiencing compassion fatigue, the quality of their work begins to decrease. While fatigued you may try to force your self-care, which increases your stress and leads to more fatigue. When stress sets in, there is less satisfaction felt in the care you are giving, which leads to exhaustion and cynicism, reducing the overall quality of interactions. This is why proactive coping or prevention of compassion fatigue is necessary. Take action by your own terms before action becomes mandatory.
Taking time to unpack the luggage of compassion fatigue now can help uncover ways to cope, counter, and prevent the inevitable, negative consequences of compassion fatigue. Here are three facts you may want to consider as you think about the compassion fatigue you’re currently facing.
20% of road transport accidents are fatigue related. Ever heard of micro-sleep?…this happens when the brain shuts down for up to 30 seconds causing the body to go into sleep mode for about the length of a football field. Imagine if that happens to you while driving children to their next therapy appointment or competition.
Another study found that after 8-9 hours of work there are increased likelihoods of performance errors, more time to complete tasks, and slower reaction times. You don’t want that happening while you are in court or caring for the children.
1 in 2 child welfare workers experiences Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) symptoms that fall within the severe range (this can easily be extended to foster parents). This is an inevitable reaction to the “microblasts” of fatigue that occur when listening to stories of trauma and comforting those who have survived trauma.
It is NECESSARY for caregivers to take vacation time, pursue hobbies, eat well and get enough sleep. It is a critical component to the process of coping. Even though parenting is a 24-hour/365-day commitment, ensuring that you’re ready for that commitment, means turning compassion fatigue into compassion satisfaction.
Starting your Compassion Satisfaction Journey
1. Set Your Intention
To reach compassion satisfaction it is essential for the caregiver to identify their intentional purpose for the work they do. Write down why this work satisfies you. My purpose for fostering is:
Once you have your purpose written out, move on to developing a self-care mission statement.
Commit to your compassion satisfaction intention by establishing a mission statement for your foster care journey.
Here is an example: It is my mission to protect myself and my family while helping children in need feel safe, healthy and nurtured.
My mission is:
2. Identify Your Needs
Begin your intention by taking stock of what is on YOUR plate.
Do you volunteer outside of being a caregiver? Do you have children in extracurricular activities?
Are there weekly or bi-weekly medical/therapist appointments? Grocery shopping?
Make a list of the things you have on your plate that are necessary for the people in your life, including you.
Now ask yourself: What is essential? What could be shared with another person? Who can you ask for help?
Identify here some people who could help:
3. Practice “yes” since “no” can be so difficult for caregivers.
We do realize that “no” can be a seemingly impossible word. So, consider developing your “yes” message. Here are two “yes” examples.
- When you are asked to make room for another child, try something like this for example, “Yes, if you will arrange, in advance, a respite family to help us out one weekend a month during this school year.” or “Yes, but this time when the child is preparing to move we need it to include some transition for the other children.” And get your agreements in writing so everyone has clearly heard the same conditions.
- Learn to say “yes” to those who offer to help. When you say YES you are sharing the joy that comes from giving.
4. Everyone needs a break.
Have a family meeting and discuss the idea of taking 10 minutes each day at the end of the work or school day in which everyone in the household sits in silence for just 10 minutes -- no video games, no homework, no forms - just 10 minutes of family quiet time, alone.
5. Building a Household Team.
Getting into the practice of delegating can be hard work. It is often more expedient to just get tasks done. That is understandable. Think of your family as a team. Have team meetings, which can help your children see the running of the household as a team sport with you as the coach!
- Sandwich nights at home can be an easy way to teach our children the basic elements of food preparation.
- Children having chores help them take responsibility and relieve burdens.
- Letting children help decide what is getting delegated can also help them learn leadership skills while giving you a break from being “in charge.”
6. Peer Support and Connections
As caregivers become increasingly exhausted they also tend to become socially isolated. This isolation creates a stress and fatigue that has serious implications on the caregiver’s effectiveness, empathy and tolerance.
"...a warm, supportive environment in which caregivers are able to discuss intrusive traumatic material, difficult clients, symptoms, fears, shame and secrets with peers to be one of the most critical ingredients in the resolution and continued prevention of compassion fatigue," said J. Eric Gentry
Support networks or groups provide a safe, therapeutic place to rest and heal from being overstressed.
7. Develop a Compassion Satisfaction Team with your Worker
Compassion satisfaction can come from building relationships that support your passion. Your foster care worker may be your best ally in developing a compassion satisfaction team and there is no doubt your worker needs this as much as you do.
Take time to consider how to make an action plan that includes developing a stronger relationship with your worker, so that together you can both develop a strategy for compassion satisfaction.
- Set up a time to meet with your worker to discuss your experience as a foster parent. Let the worker know you are exhausted and want to find a better way to manage the foster care and that you would like to hear from him/her. Or, if you are more comfortable write it as a letter.
- Share your personal mission statement with your worker. Ask your worker if they would like to share their personal foster care mission with you.
- Let your worker know that you are willing to help as many children as possible and that you want this to be a positive experience for everyone. Share your “Yes” list with the qualifications that will improve the experience for everyone. Ask your worker to share their needs as well.
- Review the National Foster Parent Association’s Code of Ethics (http://nfpaonline.org/page-1020550) with your worker. Sharing with your worker that you ascribe to these national principles will demonstrate your commitment to foster parenting.
Be the change you want to see in YOUR world…start with small steps...every step, no matter how small is necessary to complete the journey.
Write down one small change to your life that you think you could start tomorrow.
Contact the National Foster Parent Association to find support and resources in your state. Please, take care of yourself.
Cate Hawks, M.A., is the founding Director of NewFound Families-Virginia. She serves on the Board of the National Foster Parent Association and is the Vice President of the National Kinship Alliance for Children. She has served for over 20 years as a Governor-appointed administrator of mental health and child welfare services. In 2015, she was awarded the National Foster Parent Association’s President’s Award for her service in foster care.