Understanding Compassion Fatigue & Burn Out

Nov 7, 2022

I know you started out in this journey to foster care likely with an open heart and well meaning. You wanted to enrich the life of a child who might need you. You wanted to answer God’s call to care for the vulnerable. Maybe you stepped into this journey to meet the needs of a specific kid you knew-a grandson, a neighbor, a student. You saw their distress and wanted better for them and thought maybe you could play a part in their healing.

So, you said yes and welcomed a child in, not fully realizing he wasn’t the only thing you were welcoming. 

ExhaustionYou expected that meeting the emotional & relational needs of this new child might be challenging, but you definitely didn’t realize it would require this much thinking and proactive planning.  

Confusion: The parenting tools you used with your biological children aren’t working with this new child. What are you supposed to do here?

Doubt: The whole way your family did life together is shaken up. The foundation feels rocky. Did we do something wrong here?

Struggle: Everything just feels hard. Everything.

Isolation: Where is everyone? Where are the people who applauded you for saying yes but seem to be missing now that your yes has gotten difficult to keep? 

When all or some of this exhaustion, confusion, doubt, struggle, and isolation is part of your daily experience you can find yourself suffering under the weight of it all.  Hear this quote from a therapist working with many parents like us: 

“Providing the therapeutic parenting their children need to overcome developmental trauma is a unique challenge for foster and adoptive parents. The day-to-day demands of being a parent and their own exposure to their children’s loss, grief and trauma, can place foster and adoptive parents at risk for compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a combination of burnout and traumatization. The day-to-day demands of therapeutic parenting, without appropriate self-care and healthy boundaries, can lead to frustration, fatigue, apathy, exhaustion and ultimately burnout. When a parent experiences burnout, it’s as if he or she has “run out of steam” and can no longer provide the level of parenting their children need.”

Feelings of compassion fatigue and burnout can be even more complicated for a foster parent whose symptoms might more closely resemble something known as secondary caregiver trauma. Secondary caregiver trauma can be described as having, “symptoms such as nightmares, insomnia, inability to relax, feeling on edge, feeling like something bad is going to happen, and fearing for one’s safety and the safety of loved ones. A parent experiencing secondary trauma can begin to view the world as a very unsafe place and can even re-experience their own past traumas.”

It’s also possible that you are struggling with something called blocked care.  

“Blocked care is a state parents can enter when prolonged stress suppresses their capacity to sustain loving and empathic feelings towards their child.”

According to the Adoption Connection, there are ten signs that a parent might be experiencing blocked care. I am going to name them for you here and I want you to see if you can relate to any of them:

  1. You are caught up in coping with your child’s behavior and lose curiosity about the meaning behind it.
  2. You feel defensive and guard yourself from rejection.
  3. You feel burned out, chronically overwhelmed, and fatigued.
  4. You feel resentment toward one or more of your children or your situation as a whole. You may even regret adopting or fostering.
  5. You feel irritable with other family and friends.
  6. You isolate yourself.
  7. You become cynical about helpful ideas.
  8. You feel you have lost compassion – which leads to shame.
  9. You experience a crisis of faith or challenge of a personal belief system.
  10. You do not feel real pleasure in parenting.

Ok, let’s pause here because that was a lot. How many did you relate to? Can I admit that I’ve experienced most, if not all, of these statements and I am the Director of Trauma of Informed Care at the Restore Network? 

Okay so, let’s unpack this a bit. Why do we feel like this? 

First, this isn’t our fault or proof that we are not capable of being a good foster parent. There’s a very specific reason we are likely experiencing these symptoms.

Blocked care in an adult is usually a direct response to parenting a child who is in a state of blocked trust. Blocked trust develops in a child who has experienced harm in ways that affected their ability to safely trust other people. Instead of leaning into safe relationships with other adults, there is a pulling away or a pushing away instead. Children with blocked trust face the world on their own, afraid of getting too close to a person and getting hurt again. Their brains are wired for protection instead of connection

And that makes your desire to show up for them very complicated. You try, you show up, you give but you often don’t get anything in return. The relationship probably feels pretty one-sided more often than not. 

Or you might describe it more like a push-pull relationship, equal parts letting you in and pushing you away. That relationship can feel very confusing, unsure at any moment whether your desire for relationship will be welcomed in. 

But none of us were created for this. We were created for relationships. So, when you are in a relationship with someone who is pushing you away, who isn’t returning your bids for affection, it’s easier for your own brain to move into a state of protection itself. When we as parents then have a nervous system stuck in protection mode for too long, we can develop compassion fatigue, burnout, and blocked care. Over time, this way of living can become toxic stress for us and can even cause our own trauma responses.

Beginning to move through this blocked care state or compassion fatigue requires figuring out what can help your nervous system reset itself and then giving yourself regular doses of this. It means finding people who you can let in to help. It also means taking a good hard look inward and asking yourself some hard questions about why this particular child or particular situation might be affecting you in such a strong way. When you begin to get curious with yourself, you can learn about the things going on around you and inside of you that are leading you to the place you find yourself right now. Which might be a place that feels pretty hopeless and awful. 

We get that. 

When you hear about blocked care for the first time and have a name for what you are experiencing, we hope it is an “aha” moment for you. What you are feeling is real. You are not alone. Our Restore Network staff and countless other foster parents within our network have also experienced seasons of blocked care. We know personally how exhausting and hopeless it can feel. But the first step to moving through blocked care is to acknowledge it. 

You now have a name for it, and it isn’t because you aren’t cut out to be a foster parent or are doing something wrong. It is the response of your body and brain to a situation in which you are in relationship with someone whose childhood experiences have wired them to push adults away and keep themselves safe. And this is triggering your own nervous system to engage in your own coping mechanisms—your own ways of fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning. 

We spend so much of our time here at Restore equipping you to understand your children, to chase the why behind their behaviors, and to put things in place that will help them feel safe, regulated, and connected. 

But now it’s our turn to invite you to do that for yourself. 

Restore Network families check out our newest online training module “Unpacking What We Bring to the Relationship” to learn more.

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Use this guide as you pray about your response:

8 Ways Your Family Can End the Foster Care Crisis

(…whether you become a foster family or not).

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