Vol. 19, No. 2 • May 2015

Resource Parent Self-Care and Secondary Traumatic Stress

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.
-- Rachel Naomi Remen

Many children in foster care have experienced trauma--events that threatened their life or sense of safety, or the life or safety of a parent, sibling, or someone important to them. Traumas experienced by children in foster care can include things such as:

  • Physical abuse or assault
  • Sexual abuse or assault
  • Neglect
  • Separation from loved ones
  • Exposure to domestic violence or community violence

Trauma's impact varies. Some children recover very quickly. Others struggle. Trauma can profoundly affect children's behavior, feelings, relationships, learning, physical health, and view of the world. Research convincingly shows that if it is not treated, trauma can negatively affect children for the rest of their lives.

Because it can have such a big impact, resource parents and others who work with children in foster care need to understand trauma and how to help children recover from it. They need to be "trauma-informed."

A key part of being trauma-informed--and self-care--is understanding secondary traumatic stress.

Secondary Traumatic Stress
As the "secondary" in the name suggests, the cause of secondary traumatic stress (STS) is indirect. It is trauma that results from exposure to someone else's trauma, or to their trauma reactions.

Because they work so closely with traumatized children and care so much about them, foster and adoptive parents and kinship caregivers are at increased risk of STS. Resource parents' exposure to children's trauma commonly occurs through:

  • What a child tells them or what they hear a child say
  • A child's play, drawings, or written stories
  • A child's reactions to trauma reminders
  • Media coverage, case reports, or other documents about the trauma

Resource parents' reactions to these things can vary. Some are troubled or moved by what they hear and see but are able to continue on as before. Others may begin to experience signs of STS. These signs can include intrusive images; nervousness or jumpiness; difficulty concentrating or taking in information; nightmares or insomnia; emotional numbing; feelings of hopelessness or helplessness; anger (e.g., at the birth families, society, etc.); and feeling disconnected from loved ones.

Like a primary trauma, secondary traumatic stress can change the way you see and feel about the world. It can cause you to:

  • Lose perspective and identify too closely with the child
  • Respond inappropriately or disproportionately (e.g., you may try to "cocoon" your child from any possible trauma reminders)
  • Withdraw from the child
  • Go to great lengths to avoid further exposure to the child's trauma (e.g., try never to be alone with the child)

Unaddressed, STS can disrupt lives, feelings, personal relationships, and even foster care and adoptive placements.

When You Have Unresolved Trauma
If a resource parent had a trauma in their past (e.g., loss of a family member, death of a close friend, physical or emotional abuse, domestic violence) and it was not fully resolved, they may be more vulnerable to STS. The pain of resource parents' past experiences can be "re-awakened" by exposure to children going through similar situations. As a result, they may have trouble differentiating their experience from their child's or expect the child to cope with the trauma the same way they did.

Here are some suggestions for coping when a child's trauma is a reminder for you:

  • Recognize the connection between your child's trauma and your own history.
  • Distinguish which feelings belong to the present and which to the past.
  • Be honest: with yourself, with your child, and with your caseworker.
  • Get support, including trauma-focused treatment. It's never too late to heal.
  • Recognize that what worked for you may not work for your child.

Preventing STS
What can resource parents do to protect themselves from secondary traumatic stress?

You have already taken one important step, which is learning about STS--what it is and how it is caused. Knowing the signs to look for will help you recognize early on when you see possible symptoms in yourself or other family members.

Self-care is tremendously important, too. If you regularly do things that help you live a balanced life, you are protecting yourself against secondary traumatic stress. Creating and using a self-care plan is strongly recommended. For more on self-care plans and for ideas for daily, weekly, and monthly self-care activities, see this article. The sidebar below also offers helpful suggestions.

Strategies for Fighting Secondary Trauma

Understand and respond to your own needs. Learn to recognize your body's signs of stress.

Set limits. You cannot be everything to everyone. Learn to say "no" to requests for your time or attention. Recognize the job of parenting children who have been traumatized requires a change in other priorities and other relationships.

Create time for rest and leisure. Small ways of taking care of yourself can include a morning cup of coffee, a special bubble bath, a walk in the park. Focus on healthy ways to relax--increasing your consumption of alcohol or eating sweets may feel good in the moment but will lead to further stress in the future.

Maintain a positive view of the world. Bad things happen, but there is a lot of good in the world. Remember that you are part of the good that is happening in your child's life.

Seek out help for your own feelings. You are your child's lifeline. Taking care of you is taking care of your child. Find others who will listen without judgment--a friend, a sibling, a therapist, or a support group. (All of the above, if possible!)

Choose your battles. Ask yourself "does this really matter?" See what you can let go of. Realize that life will go on even if you are not perfect.

Keep hope alive. Focus on the glimmers of hope and change in your child and your relationship with your child.

Source: Children's Home Society of Missouri, n. d.

To help the children in your care, you must take care of yourself--physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. If you do this, you can be there for children and their families when they need you.

Sources: NCTSN, 2010; Conrad, 2004; Children's Home Society of Missouri, n. d.; Remen, 2006

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~