Kris’ Corner – Compassion Fatigue

October 14, 2021

I have often referenced something called “compassion fatigue”; you may have heard of it by another name, “blocked care.” Now, I’m not sure how I’ve missed this information for many years, but I’ll admit that I have…which is why I’m writing about it here so that hopefully it doesn’t pass by any of you!

What is compassion fatigue and why am I making a big deal out of telling you? Simply put, it is when prolonged stress represses a parent’s ability to give or maintain loving or empathic feelings towards their child. This is often parents’ way of protecting themselves from a child’s trauma (which many times shows up in fearful, dysregulated, and extremely challenging behaviors).

In short, it means that sometimes a foster parent does not feel emotionally connected with a child or children in their care.

Now, please understand: it doesn’t happen with every placement, and it doesn’t happen with every child. But it can happen for multiple reasons: sometimes it is either event-specific or child-specific, and other times it has to do with a child’s specific life stage or with the foster parent’s own childhood.

When I say event-specific, an example might be after a funeral or another loss. For instance, maybe you were fostering children from different cases, and one was reunified with siblings in another foster home, and the other remains with you. You might feel a disconnect from the child still in your home because of the loss you’re walking through with the reunification of the other child.

Sometimes foster parents just do not connect as well with one child as with another; just as with individuals in other areas of our lives. Kids coming into foster care are the same way. This would be an example of a child-specific instance. Over time, this stressful relationship in the home takes its toll on parents and their own defenses begin to take over, possibly leading to the development of resentful and angry feelings. Understandably, it’s extremely difficult for parents to be loving and caring when in this emotional space.

It may have to do with a child’s specific life-stage (infancy, toddler, adolescence, etc.); and it may be the stress of a child not “being his/her chronological age.” This “simple” fact can be difficult to remember and accept when you’re in the midst of parenting. Just a reminder – children coming into care have suffered great loss, and as a result, their brains may be rewired to react in a way you might consider “atypical.” Their maturity does not always match their chronological age…and honestly, that sometimes can be hard to deal with.

Then there is chronic compassion fatigue that happens when parents have experienced trauma in their own childhoods (thinking back to the post about the ACES Quiz a few weeks ago). It CAN (not always and not even most of the time…but CAN) be difficult for them to parent kids from hard places, because it might trigger the parents themselves.

An additional possibility for compassion fatigue (which I didn’t read about anywhere…this is my own conjecture) is simply because foster care is difficult. At least in my experience. In addition to juggling my biological children, my husband, and household, I am constantly thinking about the foster child and what they need. What can I do for him? How can I help her? What does this particular behavior mean? What resources do I need to find for them? Frankly…it’s exhausting, so by virtue of that fact, you can be encumbered and just fall into burnout.

All that said…why is compassion fatigue such a bad thing? I mean…it makes sense that it would happen, right? Can’t you just work through it? Unfortunately, it’s not only that you have compassion fatigue…it’s how that fatigue affects your parenting of the child. Your parenting tends to become more reactive (simply responding to problems rather than to a child’s emotional state), and your attention gets pulled towards the most negative aspects of the child.

So, what are some signs that you may be struggling with compassion fatigue?

  • Feeling defensive and being more guarded to protect yourself from rejection
  • Feeling burned out, chronically overwhelmed, or fatigued
  • Being aware that you’re meeting your child’s practical needs, but that it’s hard to feel any real pleasure in parenting
  • Feeling very caught-up with your child’s behavior rather than the underlying reason for the behavior
  • Having a tendency to be reactive rather than proactive in approaching your child
  • Finding it hard to think about different ways of being with your child – feeling very “stuck” with one way of doing things, or one preferred outcome, and finding it hard to keep an open mind
  • Feeling very sensitive to rejection from your child
  • Being irritable with your significant other or other family members
  • Becoming isolated from your friends and family
  • Feeling cynical about your situation and/or the help being offered by your support network
  • Finding it hard to tap into feelings of compassion or nurture toward your child, and then feeling guilty about this
  • Feeling “shut down”

And now after identifying compassion fatigue, what can you do about it if you have it…or what can you do to try to avoid it? First of all, learn what your vulnerable spots are in your parenting game (like through your ACES score, for instance) and understand your history, values, and beliefs. This can reduce the chance of you becoming defensive and reactive with your child. If you experience feelings of fear, anger, discouragement, and shame, try to take some time to process where these feelings might be coming from. If you’re still struggling to figure out where it’s coming from, work with a therapist familiar with attachment and trauma who can provide the space for you to do this.

Be aware of the messages your amygdala is sending you! This system in your brain is tuned-in to threat, which can of course be useful, but can also lead us to mis-read our child’s intentions; sending us into fight, flight or freeze mode…which, I probably don’t have to tell you, does not make for great parenting.

Try to tap in to the progress your child has made and not just at the minutia of a specific moment. Pull back and look “big picture” to try to get in tune with the empathy you desire to have for the child.

And lastly, this is going to sound really trite, but the answer is what the answer is…self-care. I know, I know…it’s “the thing” right now, isn’t it? But it’s definitely something that helps take care of compassion fatigue. So…self-care can mean a lot of different things, and as a foster parent, you have to look at what you need to best care for yourself, and/or give yourself a break. It might mean daily exercise…I find that if I can get 30 to 60 minutes of exercise each day, I feel like a different person. I don’t mean it has to be heavy-duty cardio, but sometimes just some fresh air and walk around the block does wonders. It might mean getting a massage; it might mean seeing a therapist; it might mean a coffee date with a friend once a week; it might mean connecting with other foster parents…or whatever it is for you (and honestly it may be multiple things). That’s what you need to do to help combat compassion fatigue.

Foster care is hard enough as it is, without being weighed down with this additional fatigue. It weighs on you emotionally and physically, as every foster parent knows…we don’t have time for that. Ever.