Children who have experienced trauma can behave in challenging ways. Sleep habits and eating patterns can be disruptive for everyone in the house. The dysregulated emotions of a traumatized child wear your heart out and leave you exhausted. The toll of secondary trauma stress is a challenge many adoptive, foster, and kinship parents face daily.
What Are the Symptoms of Secondary Trauma Stress?
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines secondary trauma stress as “the emotional duress that results when you hear about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.” Adoptive, foster, and kinship caregivers risk vicarious trauma simply because they step into the child’s space to walk with this child toward healing.
If you are feeling weary and worn down by the experiences of parenting this child, consider this list of common symptoms.
- Prolonged grief, anxiety, depression
- Emotional numbness, shutdown, withdrawal
- Irritability with spouse, partner, friends
- Agitation, jumpiness, nervousness
- Difficulty with concentration, focus, shortened attention span
- Sleep issues
- Unhealthy eating or drinking habits
Do any of these signs sound familiar to you? You probably have seen these symptoms in your child. The impacts of your exposure to their traumatic experiences often will look like the symptoms of having experienced that trauma yourself.
Where does it start?
You are providing a safe, healing space for children who have experienced tremendous loss, grief, abuse, and other trauma. Your exposure to your child’s trauma can occur in the daily experiences of raising adopted, foster, or kinship kids. When you open your heart to this path, you are opening yourself to also experiencing their pain.
- Your child tells you about a traumatic experience from their past, or you overhear the child tell a therapist, teacher, or friend.
- The child’s playtime, artwork, or creative writing expresses their past trauma or abuse.
- Your child has a visible or behavioral reaction to trauma reminders.
- You see media coverage, case reports, or other documentation of the child’s traumatic experiences.
Am I at Risk for Secondary Trauma Stress?
In addition to understanding the symptoms of secondary trauma, it helps identify the risk factors in your life and home. In general, it is more common for mothers to be at risk for secondary trauma stress because they most often carry the lion’s share of the emotional load of parenting. However, we understand that this might be a generalization that does not apply to all families or caregivers.
You should consider these other potential risk factors if you are parenting a child who has experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect.
Parents and caregivers with highly empathic temperaments
Feeling a child’s pain and entering it with them can heighten your vulnerability, even though it is what your child needs.
Foster and kinship parents who care for many children at once
Juggling the intensive needs of several kids dealing with trauma is a risk factor. Also at risk are foster and kinship caregivers who don’t take enough time between placements to refresh.
Caregivers with unresolved trauma of their own
Parents who have not explored healing for their griefs or losses may be at risk. You may also be at increased risk if you have not identified your “trauma triggers.” We recommend you also consider unresolved issues of your parental attachment style to help mitigate the risks.
The absence of a robust support network leaves parents vulnerable to secondary trauma stress. When a parent is ill-equipped due to a lack of resources or support to handle their child’s trauma, they are unprepared to lead the child toward healing.
Your and your partner’s risk factors
Each of you comes to this parenting experience with a unique history and a combination of other risk factors, such as:
- family-of-origin trauma
- traumatic life experiences outside of your family of origin
- personality, physical, or mental health factors
Be sure to support each other as you consider how these factors impact how you cope with your child’s trauma.
Multiple children in the home
As we said earlier, consider that the other kids in your home are also vulnerable to secondary traumatic stress. Your role is to protect them and help them understand what they are experiencing in age-appropriate ways. However, be aware that your actions of protecting them will increase your risk for secondary trauma.
How Can I Manage Secondary Trauma Stress?
It’s overwhelming to consider the risks and impacts of secondary trauma. The good news is that this is manageable. One foundational truth to rely upon is that taking care of yourself IS taking care of your child. With that as your starting point, consider these ideas for managing secondary trauma stress.
1. Educate yourself.
Learn all you can about early childhood trauma, your children’s experiences, trauma responses, and how to help them heal. Figure out how to model new behaviors and practice them until they become familiar. CreatingaFamilyEd.org has excellent resources to learn about the impacts of trauma and how to parent in connected ways.
2. Practice mindfulness.
Learn what mindfulness is and how to identify the emotions and impacts you feel in your body. Practice awareness skills to help you learn your triggers, using the art of “the pause” to help you focus on what is happening inside you.
3. Begin health-focused self-care.
Engaging in self-care is critical when raising kids who have experienced trauma. Encourage your partner in this area as well. Make – and keep! – regular doctor appointments. Try to give yourself the best opportunities to pursue good health.
Similarly, engage in physical activity that feels good and keeps your body moving. Don’t call it “exercise” if that is an obstacle for you! You should also eat regular, healthy meals and limit junk or stress eating. Healthy self-care can look like meal-prepping every Sunday for the week of meals ahead or ordering grocery delivery to limit your impulse purchases of junk food.
4. Create a self-care plan.
What activities or hobbies bring you joy? Find one thing each week to which you can look forward. Put one on the calendar, and don’t cancel on yourself! It might even help to plan one small thing a day and a “bigger” event each week. Remember to incorporate downtime as a regular part of healthy self-care.
5. Set limits and boundaries.
It can be very challenging to say “no” to the many things you get asked to do. That’s okay – try it anyway. Ask yourself, “Does this event serve me or my family well this week?” When something is off-mission for you, permit yourself to let it go. Someday, there may be a season when you don’t need to ask this question. But right now, it’s okay to hold those boundaries tightly.
6. Express yourself.
Practice healthy language to express your needs and boundaries. Take a deep breath when you feel your emotions rising, and calmly say what you need at the moment. For example, “Hey guys, Mom is feeling very anxious right now. Everyone’s big feelings are triggering big emotions in me, too. Can we take a ten-minute pause and come back to talk about this later?”
Calmly identifying your internal state is a great tool to help your kids connect what you feel to what you need. The bonus is that modeling healthy communication is contagious! Be sure to also express yourself in positive, pleasant moments: “Hey guys, we problem-solved that argument well and with respect for each other. Thank you for that!”
7. Write it out in a journal.
Journaling can be an effective tool to sort out your feelings, plan to improve your communication or set goals for self-care. There are many resources available for how to journal if you are new to the idea.
8. Nurture your adult relationships.
We all need adult relationships that bring perspective, support and care to our lives. Figure out who your people are and intentionally seek ways to strengthen those relationships. Create a few relationships that are safe, trusting spaces where you can thrive and refuel.
9. Seek therapy.
Seek a therapist or counselor to help you identify your unresolved losses or trauma and learn new skills for coping. We have excellent resources to find a therapist that understands trauma and can support you and your family.
Practice Self-Compassion to Manage Secondary Trauma Stress
You cannot – and should not – tackle all nine of these tips at once! Instead, consider how to practice self-compassion as you implement them. Some parents might practice only one tip at a time and add the next after several weeks. You might combine several of these ideas to develop your unique path forward. It will be empowering to look at your progress as you learn to manage secondary trauma stress for you and your children.
How have you managed the secondary trauma stress for you and your children? Tell us in the comments!
Image Credits: Andrew Neel; Andrea Piacquadio; Noelle Otto