compassion fatigue in fostering


Compassion fatigue in fostering

Author: Jamie McCreghan   On: Aug 14, 2023  In: Advice for Carers
compassion fatigue

Research has been dedicated to understanding what happens to foster carers when they are impacted by something called compassion fatigue or blocked trust. Often children who come into foster care have experienced trauma, instability, and inconsistent parenting. Foster carers looking after them need to be emotionally ready to receive their varying states of need to help them feel safe and to heal.

Compassion fatigue in fostering refers to the emotional exhaustion, burnout, and reduced empathy that foster parents may experience as a result of providing care to children who have received harmful parenting. It can occur when foster parents are exposed to high levels of stress, trauma, and emotional demands over an extended period. This can lead to a state of emotional fatigue and a reduced ability to empathise with the children in their care. It’s important that foster carers do not feel guilty or hold feelings of shame if they think this might be happening.

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cultural heritage
As young people get older, they become more accountable for their behaviours.

Unrecognised compassion fatigue

Unrecognised compassion fatigue can impact the quality of care provided, lead to adverse outcomes for both the foster parents and the children and increase the likelihood of placement disruptions. The team at Lika speak openly about compassion fatigue with foster carers about the impact this can have on both their mental health and that of the young people in their care. We believe that recognition of these feelings and talking about them openly, this can reduce anyone needing to work through these emotional challenges alone.

Compassion fatigue is widely understood to have three separate but related dimensions (Stamm, 2010).


Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that can result from prolonged periods of stress and overwhelming demands. It can be particularly common in professions where individuals feel a strong emotional involvement with their work, such as caregivers, social workers, healthcare professionals and teachers.

Secondary traumatic stress

Secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma, can occur when a foster carer is supporting a young person who has experienced trauma. The impact of this on the foster carer can impact their mood, relationships, sleep, and ability to work through usually minor challenges. We know our foster carers feel deeply and are emotionally connected with their young people in a way which means their own needs are not always the priority.

Compassion satisfaction

This is the satisfaction that foster carers get from their work with young people and their role in fostering. It’s the positive feeling from helping itself. Moderating the effects of secondary trauma and burnout is compassion satisfaction.

compassion fatigue in fostering
Compassion fatigue

What does the research say?

Key research findings from Ottaway & Selwyn (2016) from the University of Bristol and Fostering Attachments Ltd found that:

  • In comparison with people working in other stressful helping professions, foster carers had slightly higher levels of burnout, lower levels of compassion satisfaction and similar levels of secondary traumatic stress.
  • There were no statistical differences on any of the three scales by gender, by ethnicity or whether the carer was single or had a partner or if the carer had birth children living at home.
  • There were no statistical differences in the compassion satisfaction or Self-Transcendence Scale (STS) by the age of the foster carers.
  • Foster carers who are 60 years plus, were less likely to be showing symptoms of burnout in comparison with younger carers. This may be because older foster carers still fostering were more resilient and those most affected by burnout had stopped fostering.
  • Foster carers who had been fostering for 8 or more years were more likely to have high-stress scores.
  • Scores of Independent Fostering Agency (IFA) carers on the compassion satisfaction scale were significantly higher and scores on the burnout and secondary trauma scale were significantly lower compared to carers working for Local Authorities. This could suggest that the agency had a crucial role in enabling carers to remain committed to fostering and enjoying their work.

What is blocked trust?

Children who have experienced inconsistent, neglectful, or abusive relationships may develop brains that are wired for survival and mistrust of others. They often find relationships with adults unsafe and resist closeness as they do not trust other people’s motives or intentions. In the context of the children’s experiences, these patterns of behaviour are highly adaptive and self-protective. They are also engrained in their survival brains and do not simply ‘turn off’ when their circumstances change. It is not surprising then that when children enter a safe care environment, their patterns of mistrusting behaviour persist because they have blocked trust.

Blocked trust is when:

  • Children learn to ‘block’ their pain.
  • There is a fear of connection with others.
  • It impacts their capacity to communicate.
  • There is fear of abandonment or rejection.
  • It impacts their capacity to show emotion and delight.
  • There might be an avoidance of physical touch.
  • A child struggles to accept different experiences of caregiving.

When there is blocked trust, a foster carer might notice a young person:

  • Constantly in ‘fight, flight or freeze mode’.
  • Is hypervigilant and struggles to settle.
  • Regularly ‘reject’ affection.
  • Resist discussing their emotions.

Blocked trust can feel challenging to manage, as foster carers can feel that children are not changing or experiencing their care in helpful ways. Trauma influences children in different ways, meaning foster carers may not always see the change they expect.

blocked trust
Young people can be in fight, flight and freeze when managing complexities in relationships.

What can foster carers do about it compassion fatigue?

Learning what your vulnerable spots are from your own upbringing and understanding your history, understanding how your personal values and beliefs can reduce the chance of you becoming defensive and reactive with your child. If you notice feelings of fear, anger, discouragement and shame, try to take some time to think about where these might be coming from. Working with a therapist or professional familiar with attachment and trauma can provide the space for you to do this.

Top 9 tips

  1. Understand the vulnerable times from your upbringing and how this may influence your relationships and responses now.
  2. Understand your personal values and beliefs and how this shows up in your relationships and caring responsibilities.
  3. If you notice negative feelings try to understand where these are coming from and how this may influence those around, you.
  4. Try to get in touch with compassionate feelings towards yourself.
  5. Know that you are doing your very best. Relationships are complex. No one way fits all in understanding people.
  6. Take a big-picture approach and think about positive changes – even small ones.
  7. Managing our own stress levels is critical – use consistent and reliable self-care practices.
  8. Talk to a therapist or social care professional with expertise in attachment in helping to understand more some of the less helpful patterns you may be in with a young person.
  9. Remember you’re not alone – your fostering peers may have similar times when they have compassion fatigue however aren’t able to verbalise this worry.
  10. Using regular respite as well as taking breaks between looking after young people. Everyone needs to recharge.

Therapeutic Responses to Challenging Behaviour for Training

If you have found this blog helpful and would like to learn more, please visit our training page where you can access a full training session on Therapeutic Responses to Challenging Behaviour for free.

What can help work through challenging moments?

Lika understands that impact compassion fatigue can have on foster carers, young people, and the wider family. What does Lika offer to support its foster carers to mitigate and manage compassion fatigue?

  • 1 – 4 weekly supervisions with their supervising social worker to talk through and understand the needs of their young person.
  • 24 / 7 out of hours access to one of the Lika team so they’re never unsupported if things feel difficult.
  • Access to a team of skilled and knowledgeable internal Systemic Psychotherapist Consultants and Systemic Social Work Practitioners who are never stuck for ideas in how to support.
  • Virtual monthly foster carers support meetings – led and chaired by experienced foster carers.
  • Virtual Fortnightly Therapeutic Family Consultations – facilitated by one of our psychotherapists and open to any foster carers in the agency to attend.
  • Life Coaching is available for foster children, birth children and foster carers.
  • Mentor Support Scheme – when foster carers are partnered up with more experienced foster carers.
  • Free training for fostering support networks – they’re welcome to join any training Lika offers in sharing and understanding ideas so that everyone is on the same page.
  • Access to Lika’s Support Workers, depending on the level of need for the young person.
  • Access to Lika’s Educational Consultant in offering ideas and advocacy in supporting young people to achieve in education.
  • Lika’s Systemic Social Work Practitioners/therapists can undertake skilled direct work without waiting lists for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).
  • 14 – 21 days of paid respite (depending on complexity) to recharge your batteries and have some space for self-care.

“Children thrive when they move to this fostering agency. They make significant progress from their starting points.” – Ofsted 2023.

Lika was rated Outstanding by Ofsted in 2023. Lika is an innovative agency that uses systemic family therapy approaches as a model to guide everything we do.

If you’re interested to know more, give our team a call on 0208 667 2111 or email

Thinking about becoming a foster carer?

If you’re in south or east London and you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, give the helpful team at Lika a call on 020 8667 2111. We’re here to answer all your questions.

We’re in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, and Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea. 


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