Young Woman Thinking“I’ve been a foster parent for sixteen years” said Michelle. “And this is the first time anyone has ever asked about how this job affects me.”

How does this very difficult work affect foster parents? If we don’t ask and make space for these conversations, our parents are more likely to become tired, hopeless, and eventually quit.

What is Vicarious Traumatization?

The definition of vicarious traumatization (VT) from Risking Connection© (Sidran Foundation) is:

“VT refers to the negative changes in the helper as a result of empathically engaging with and feeling, or being, responsible for traumatized clients.” We can see these affects physically, emotionally, in our thoughts, in our sense of safety, in our relationships, our spirituality, and our sense of hope.

How do we see VT in foster parents?

At a recent training, parents described their experiences:

Jennifer spoke of not being able to sleep because of worrying what their child will do. Tanya described the isolation of being alienated from friends and family who do not understand why they do not just punish the child more severely. Andrew described how hard it can be when he has been desperately worried about a runaway foster daughter and then the girl returns and acts mean to him and seems to think her behavior was fine. Roy talked about being with his son when a planned visit with the bio mother was canceled due to her not showing up. LaTasha spoke about how tired she always feels, and how she no longer wants to go out with her friends or even do her favorite scrapbooking because she just wants to sleep. Mark said that for him the hardest thing is not knowing what to do, how to respond, and beginning to doubt himself. Several parents described the effects on their biological children, who resented the attention taken by the foster child and who at times had themselves been physically hurt.

Several parents commented on how depressing this list was. Then Arlene said: “but it is so good to know I am not alone in feeling this way.” Several people said they could have written everything on the list. The parents felt that only others in this field could understand what it is like.

Vicarious Transformation

What then are the positive benefits of being a foster family? Many parents felt that they had become better people because of doing this work. They were more patient, more understanding, and more creative. They felt they had become better parents to their bio children. In fact, many also felt that their bio children had become better people because of the foster children. Repeatedly people spoke of how much it meant that your life had a purpose, that you were doing something very important, that you were making a difference in a child’s life.

The positives do not take away the negatives. They are both real. It is through the intensity of the work that personal transformation happens.

We must open the conversation with foster parents about how the work is affecting them. Remember this saying from Agememnon Seneca:

SenecaGrief wounds more deeply in solitude; tears are less bitter when mingled with other tears.



Would you like a checklist of symptoms of foster parent VT to use with parents to help increase their self-awareness?

Click Here to Get the Checklist


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