by Bronwyn Robertson, LPC

Foster and adoptive parents experience unique rewards and challenges. Through their nurturing, love, stability and support, they can transform the lives of their children. Studies have shown that the stability and nurturing provided by foster and adoptive parents can help children overcome adversity and even reverse some of the impact of early childhood trauma. But this requires a therapeutic form of parenting and an understanding and knowledge of their children’s developmental trauma.

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.

 When parents are exposed to their children’s symptoms and history of trauma, they can begin experiencing symptoms of trauma themselves. This is known as secondary trauma and can include 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.

When parents experience high levels of burnout and secondary trauma for prolonged periods of time, they become at risk of compassion fatigue. A profound state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, compassion fatigue develops gradually but ultimately can result in the loss of empathy and caring for one’s children and oneself. When symptoms of burnout and secondary trauma are recognized and managed early, the risk of compassion fatigue is greatly reduced. Through therapeutic support and self-care, foster and adoptive parents can become learn to recognize and overcome these challenges, and more fully experience the rewards of parenting.