Parenting foster children who have come to your home from trauma, neglect or abuse is likely the hardest work you will ever do. It requires you to have a wide variety of tools in your parenting toolbox. Self-care for foster parents is one of the most important tools you can have in that toolbox.

Without healthy, meaningful self-care, you will be operating at a deficit that can lead to burn-out, relationship struggles, and feelings of inadequacy or even failure in your foster experience.

You Can’t Pour From an Empty Cup

The old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup” is never truer than when your home is full of hurting kids who themselves are running on empty cups. The losses that brought them to your home have drained their cups and out of that dry place, they are likely to act out and behave in ways that will feel as if they are sucking the life right out of your home. What you do when you feel that happening will make all the difference for you and for them.

What’s Stopping You?

Before we talk about what meaningful self-care for foster parents looks like, let’s examine some of the common obstacles that prevent foster parents from refreshing and equipping themselves.

“I don’t have time for that”

“take good care of herself” is all-too often a frustrating comment that leaves you more stressed than before you heard it.

As a foster parent, hearing someone say “take good care of yourself” is all-too-often a frustrating, trite comment that likely leaves you more stressed than before you heard it tossed at you off the cuff. Blood pressure rising, now you’re mentally checking your (over-scheduled) calendar for the week, wondering when you’re going to get to the grocery store and how you’re going to make it to therapy at 5 on one side of town if flute lessons aren’t over until 4:45 on the other side of town. The last thing you are trying to squeeze in is downtime for yourself that you have to schedule for yourself and arrange child care for yourself to actually do.

“I can’t leave the kids, they need me right now”

Many foster parents are drawn to the work of fostering because they are naturally generous care-giving personalities. Yes, the foster children DO need what you offer and what you agreed to provide when you welcomed them in to your home. But that generosity and nurture is very difficult to turn around to yourself, isn’t it? Self-care for foster parents is so very necessary precisely because you are giving so much of yourselves to others to heal and care. Seeking to care for yourself might feel very unnatural and even selfish.

“I need to be at that game, that play, that party with my kids”

Closely related to the need to be the nurturing provider for your foster kids is the desire to create wonderful, safe and loving “family” experiences for them. You may feel an extra weight to give your foster children the very best of childhood that you can give them – happy memories of birthday parties, family movie nights, learning how to ride a bike, baking together, soccer games, and so on. It can leave precious little room in your schedule for a moment or ten to breathe, re-focus, and refuel yourself.

“I don’t have enough help for that”

There are (with good reason) specific county or state requirements that respite care providers must meet in order to provide help for a foster parent, be it babysitting for a night out or a weekend away with your spouse. It’s hard to find folks in your life that are willing to submit to the preparations and clearances needed to support you in that practical way. As a result, many foster parents report that the “village” surrounding their family is often made of other parents in similar straits. They are often generous-hearted, nurturing people who do this care for each other. But it also becomes exhausted parents helping other exhausted parents and then none of you are really getting the self-care that you need to foster (or live) well.

“I’m so exhausted, I don’t even know WHAT I need”

When you’ve reached the point of trying to pour from that empty cup, it’s incredibly difficult to figure out what it is that you need or want to re-fill that cup.

When you’ve reached the point of trying to pour from that empty cup, it’s incredibly difficult to figure out what it is that you need or want to re-fill that cup. It’s like being “hangry.” Your physical body is so empty, your brain is muddled and every suggestion of food sounds simultaneously wonderful and awful – especially if there’s a lot of prep work before it gets into your stomach. Would a date night with your husband suffice? Do you need to pull away as an original nuclear family for a weekend at Grandma’s? Sometimes what you really could use the most is a training seminar on trauma behaviors for some fresh new perspective. All of it sounds wonderful. But also like So! Much! Work! Again, when you are depleted, it’s hard to think clearly enough to seek meaningful self-care for foster parents.

How Do I Find Self-Care for Foster Parents?

Online Resources

Self-care for foster parents is indeed a very subjective topic – what soothes and refreshes you might not at all be meaningful to me. In fact, it might make me feel like I have just added one more thing to Mom’s To Do list. The good news is that there are resources that help you assess what your needs are and how to employ that self-care you are seeking. One such tool is an assessment and curriculum like the Trauma Systems Therapy for Foster Care (TST-FC).

TST-FC’s self-care assessment allows foster parents to develop plans to support themselves. The assessment measures both strength and potential growth in the following areas:

  • physical self-care (e.g. diet and exercise);
  • psychological self-care (e.g. reflection and curiosity);
  • emotional self-care, (e.g. friends and recreation);
  • spiritual self-care (e.g. prayer and meditation); and
  • workplace self-care (e.g. breaks and workload).

A similar resource is this downloadable pdf called TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF: TIPS FOR FOSTER AND RESOURCE PARENTS, from the Center for the Study of Social Policy. It’s a guide to thinking through what care you and your family need and how to seek education in these 5 key areas:

  • Resilience
  • Social Connections
  • Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development
  • Concrete Support in Times of Need
  • Children’s Social Emotional Competence

Utilize Your Caseworker’s Knowledge

You can also check in with your foster child’s caseworker. Ask for the resources and tools that they offer their foster families. Ask for suggestions and lists of already approved respite providers. Ask about continuing education classes or weekend retreats and seminars. Ask for suggestions on how to build a “village” around your family in order to have babysitters and respite providers available. Ask what he or she has observed to be meaningful self-care for foster parents she’s worked with before you.

Find Your People

Finally, it’s important to intentionally seek a support community. There are usually in-person foster support groups to be found in your region if you ask your caseworker or talk with other foster/adoptive parent friends. Many private agencies offer them and you don’t always have to be a client of that particular agency to enjoy the support.

In addition to in-person support, there are a lot of great online options for you. These online support groups are often a great option for a parent who feels as if they cannot get out just yet to attend a regular meeting, especially if that meeting doesn’t have good, structured child care available. Online communities are also good for the fact that they are always available to you and there’s almost always someone online already who “gets” what you are facing and can either commiserate with you or offer you their own experiences with the same.

Creating a Family runs an online support group that is very active and full of very experienced foster parents and former foster youth. Their voices can lend amazing support to your experience and you’ll never feel alone when you log in to join us.

What are you doing to actively pursue meaningful self-care for your foster care journey?

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Image credit: Khánh Hmoong, image credit: Stefano Andolcetti, image credit: Mollie Murbach