by Jonathan Rockoff •
If you provide kinship care, what I’m about to say will not be surprising: your circumstances and daily experiences are likely much different than “traditional,” non-relative foster parents.
In this article I want to do more than provide tips on how to care for yourself as a kinship caregiver. After all, you’re likely aware of what you would like to do to care for yourself. Instead, I hope to persuade you to put your self-care needs on the same level with the needs of the children in your care.
Despite the challenges they faced, the kin I knew were less likely than foster parents to ask for help or follow through with plans of self-care.
You Make Such a Difference
First, I hope you recognize how invaluable you are. Your selflessness means that your young relatives can stay within the family, even if they can’t be with their parents right now. This really makes a difference to children’s well-being. Studies have shown that compared to children in non-relative foster care, children in kinship care have fewer behavioral problems, lower rates of mental health disorders, better overall well-being, and fewer placements (Winokur, Holtan, & Batchelder, 2014).
But while outcomes for youth are positive, other studies have shown kinship care providers themselves have higher rates of depression and struggle more with guilt than non-relative foster parents (AECF, 2018a, 2018b).
This fits with my experience. Despite the challenges they faced, kin caregivers I have known were less likely than foster parents to ask for help or follow through with plans of self-care.
Acknowledging the Impact
I think one of the reasons for this is that unlike traditional foster parents, kinship caregivers are more likely to have trouble acknowledging the impact their situation has on them.
Typically, when people become foster parents they think about it for months or years beforehand. They prepare their home and bedrooms. They speak with their place of employment and make sure their schedule is flexible enough to accommodate children with many meetings, needs, and appointments. There are many crucial acts of preparation before becoming a licensed foster parent, and one of the most important is securing a consistent and reliable support system.
As a kinship caregiver, you were likely not afforded the same luxury of preparation. Kinship care often happens quickly and in a crisis. The children may be family, but that doesn’t mean the need to prepare is any less. This a disruption to your lifestyle, period.
Working in foster care, I had many kinship care providers either allude to or come right out and say they didn’t feel they were entitled to a break for self-care or respite. They would say things like, “It’s family, I don’t need a break” or “I’m not comfortable sending the kids somewhere else.”
I always understood. After all, it’s family, and family is unconditional.
You Deserve a Break
However, I would always then respectfully encourage them to seek out self-care—to consider other relatives that could care for the kids for a weekend, or even take advantage of the fact they are licensed within an agency with many other safe and experienced foster homes that could provide temporary respite.
In some ways, kinship care can be more stressful than traditional foster care. Take the second-hand stress, for example. Instead of just getting information at monthly team meetings, you may get frequent updates from family members about the parent’s recovery efforts or other struggles. Kinship care may also cause stress as family dynamics shift and responsibilities change. Guilt, ambivalence, and conflict are all common among kinship caregivers.
If you’re providing kinship care, I encourage you to take care of yourself with the same enthusiasm and devotion you use to care for the children in your home. Take a moment and think back to your own childhood. There were likely many times you spent a night, a weekend, or longer with a relative or friend. That gave your caregivers a break. Just as importantly, it gave you a break.
Refresh and recharge. After all, you’re a kinship provider. You have important work to do.
Coping with the Unique Challenges of Kinship Care. This training series from the Annie E. Casey Foundation features therapist and trainer Joseph Crumbley as he explores how kinship care changes and affects family dynamics; how these changes can result in challenges that may affect a caregiver’s ability to provide safety and permanence for the youth in their care; and approaches and strategies to cope with these challenges.
Self-care issue of Fostering Perspectives (vol. 19, no. 2). Featured articles include “Self-Care for Relative Caregivers: One Family’s Story,” “Self-Care and Secondary Traumatic Stress,” and “Caring for Children Whose Parents Struggle with Drugs or Alcohol.”
Jonathan Rockoff is a Training Specialist with the Family and Children’s Resource Program at the UNC School of Social Work.
For references cited in this issue, click here.