The work of a foster parent is so very underestimated. The work of any caregiver is chronically under-valued and under-appreciated but the “work” a foster parent takes on is unique in this regard.  This work is done in one’s own home; there is no retreat from a traditional workspace, no separation to a place of privacy to regroup and recharge. The day in-day out demands of parenting children from hard places is nothing like parenting the children we have known since birth. These children have histories we don’t share, experiences beyond our wildest imagination in most cases and often come to us with brains that need 24/7 specialized and informed tender loving care.

If you are reading this, the odds are that at least some of the children in your home have almost certainly been exposed to chronic, toxic stress and, I will suggest, as a parent to them, so have you. These children have experienced enough rejection and chaos for several lifetimes so I hope that by taking care of yourself first, you will be better able to continue to care for them even on your hardest of days/weeks/months because if you don’t take care of yourself, it is unlikely that you will be able to deliver your best.

Training is key but you never know what you’ll get when you sign up for a conference; some speakers are perfectly memorable and some are hardly worth your time. I recently had the pleasure of hearing a memorable speaker address a large crowd of helping professionals (including foster parents) about compassion fatigue and secondary trauma. It was memorable and I want to share some of her insights with you here. 

From the website ( Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, founder and director of The Trauma Stewardship Institute and author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, has worked directly with trauma survivors for more than three decades. She has worked with groups as diverse as zookeepers and reconstruction workers in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, community organizers and health care providers in Japan, U.S. Air Force pilots, Canadian firefighters, public school teachers, private practice doctors, tiny non-profits, massive state agencies, libraries, the Pentagon, alternative colleges, and Ivy League universities. Much of her work is being invited to assist in the aftermath of community catastrophes–whether they are fatal storms or mass shootings. She has worked locally, nationally, and internationally. Laura is known as a pioneer in the field of trauma exposure.

May is Foster Care Month. Public Service Announcements fill the airwaves with messages about the need for foster parents and the faces of the children who need foster care. I have yet to see anything during National Foster Care Month about what it takes to be an effective foster parent or how to remain an effective foster parent so I will take this moment to offer what I can. According to Dr. Arne Graff, Division Chair, Child Abuse Pediatrics, Mayo Clinic: “chronic exposure to toxic stress can lead to acute and long-term mental and physical health problems”. Lipsky describes the Trauma Exposure Response as the “transformation that takes place within us as a result of exposure to the suffering of other living beings or the planet.” Does any of this resonate with you?

Feeling Helpless and Hopeless                        A Sense that One Can Never Do Enough                              Hypervigilance                               Diminished Creativity                

Inability to Embrace Complexity                     Minimizing                          Chronic Exhaustion/Physical Ailments                         Inability to Listen/Deliberate Avoidance

Dissociative Moments                            Sense of Persecution                   Guilt                                      Fear                                       Anger and Cynicism                                            

Inability to Empathize/Numbing                                             Addictions                           Grandiosity: An Inflated Sense of Importance Related to One’s Work

I want to share just a bit more of what she gave our group that day because it resonated with our AZAFAP value of Oxygen Mask/Self Care First. She offered concrete strategies for combating the destructive toll Trauma Exposure takes on us. Under the category of LESS DEPLETION, MORE STAMINA, Ms. Lipsky lists 7 things you can do to take care of yourself.

SIMPLIFY – Grocery delivery service? Protein cooked for the entire week? Cold water wash for EVERYTHING?

CONNECT YOUR MIND AND BODY Brief music and movement during transitions? Practice GRATITUDE at beginning and end of each day. SMILE.

Get and give HUGS. Eat fresh, not processed foods.

            APPRECIATE NATURE- Gardening? Bird feeder? Walk in the desert/woods? Time grooming pets?

            DRAW ON SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION – Worship, prayer, or meditation?

            ADMIRE ART – Singing or listening to music, sculpture, painting, dance, drawing, embroidery, etc.?

            LAUGH – Be silly? Tell funny stories about yourself and your childhood? Read funny stories to the kids?

            ENGAGE WITH COMMUNITY – Make time for supportive loved ones and fellow foster/kinship/adoptive parents.

I’ve heard all the “yes, buts”:

The kids need me.              My faith is strong enough to protect me.                   I am so blessed, they have suffered so much; it just feels selfish.      

There is no time in the day.                     I don’t need to change; the child will get used to my style and be better for it.


All the best,