Foster Parents work daily, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with children who have been traumatized. They listen to their stories and feel their hurt. Empathy is often the most important tool foster parents bring to helping the children in their care. Unfortunately, the more empathic they are the greater their risk for internalizing the trauma of their foster children. The result of this engagement is secondary traumatic stress. – Donald Conrad, LCSW
Trauma. We talk about it a lot, particularly in relation to the children we serve. But what about how it affects you, our foster parents? We started formally addressing this in our Promoting Placement Stability training, stressing the importance of taking care of yourself so you can properly support and take care of the children in your home. The metaphor of, when on a plane, being instructed to put your own oxygen mask on first, before trying to help others, is apt.
The term “secondary trauma” comes from the idea that helpers, such as yourselves, are but one step away from the original trauma. Rachel Remen expressed: “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.”
Some reasons foster parents are at particular risk for the effects of secondary trauma include:
- Empathy. You spend so much time expressing empathy for the children you care for, it is sometimes possible to over-identify with them and begin to internalize their trauma.
- Insufficient recovery time. As part of your empathy, you hear horrific stories and see the effects of children’s trauma not just once, but every day.
- Unresolved personal trauma. We’ve all had our own share of trauma and loss in our lives, but if it isn’t dealt with appropriately, working with traumatized children can “re-activate” some of our own issues.
- We work with children. Children are vulnerable and we see so many who have been hurt by those who should haven been caring for, and protecting them. Frustration with our inability to make the big changes to “the system” can sometimes feel defeating.
It’s important to remember that we serve a God who is bigger than all of these issues. Putting our concerns in His hands is the best and first place to start, should you begin to feel wore down. Coming to parent support groups is another opportunity to find prayer and support from those who can appreciate your burdens. Talk to your staff: we have the very best staff, here at Bair, but please don’t assume that they can “read between the lines” that you may be feeling stress or want prayer. Talk about your needs and ask for prayer! We’re here to support you! Try some of the suggestions offered in the Promoting Placement Stability training, about taking care of yourself. Don’t remember what they were? Ask your staff for another copy of the handouts!
Remember: ultimately, your ability to effectively care for the children in your home depends on your ability to care for yourself… physically, spiritually, socially, and emotionally. Thank you for the tireless hard work you do for the glory of God every day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.