Compassion Fatigue: The symptoms and the cause

Compassion fatigue can affect people from all walks of life. But what is it, and why does it happen to us?

One of the words that I would use to describe myself is ‘compassionate’. I’ve been known to cry at TV adverts and be moved by the backstory of competitors in the Olympics, but I’m not talking about ‘just’ being emotional. It goes deeper than that. I’ve always been moved to action by injustice and stirred by people’s stories. It’s one the reasons that we came to fostering and adoption.

I always thought I was a naturally an empathetic parent, in tune with and compassionate about what my children are feeling, whether that’s sadness that the TV got turned off, despair because Maths is just so hard, or the mix of emotions that come as they journey through painful bits of their life story.

Then lockdown happened.

Like so many people, I found myself at home with 4 children (toddlers to teenagers), trying to work at home, attempting something resembling home-schooling, navigating how to do church online, trying to care for and connect with wider family and friends, all alongside the normal life admin that we all have.

There were some beautiful moments, but it was challenging, intense and overwhelming.

Our children were journeying it too, and without their normal respite of school, other family members and time away from the house, it was difficult for them. From huge meltdowns to sabotaging any effort to create fun memories, for us, as for so many families raising children who have had a difficult start, these feelings were outworked in lots of challenging behaviour.

Why am I sharing this? Because during lockdown there were so many times when I understood what was happening for my children and why they might be finding things challenging, but I just didn’t have it in me to care. I felt disconnected, detached, compassion-less. I was weary.

I’m not talking about just one or two tricky days. Over time, I began to see a shift in my response that didn’t feel like me. Compassion, something that runs through the core of who I am, felt so far away.

Was I losing part of my identity? Had I become hard-hearted? No; I was experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is experienced as a physical and emotional response to the stress of caring for those who have experienced trauma. It involves a decrease in empathy and a decline in feelings of pleasure, alongside an increase in stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and negativity. [i]

Symptoms may include depression, disconnection from the child(ren) and others, despair, negativity towards the child(ren), blaming others or rejecting strategies offered. For those experiencing it, it can feel exhausting, frustrating and shameful. This is nothing to do with the value of your child(ren), or indeed how much you love them, but is a symptom of pouring out care and compassion for a long time.

Compassion fatigue can affect people from all walks of life; from nurses to social workers, care workers to those in the police force AND people like you and me.

But why does it happen to us? We chose to grow our families in this way, and we do it willingly, joyfully, and following the call of God in it!

We experience compassion fatigue because raising children who have experienced trauma is hard. From challenging behaviour to little or no returns in the ‘serve and return’ exchanges that are so vital for building relationships and sustaining compassion, the impact of trauma runs deep and affects everything.

That doesn’t diminish why we do it or our commitment to and love for our children, nor is it about blaming them. We know that our fight is not with them personally (however it may feel), but with the trauma they have experienced.

However, compassion fatigue can cause adoptive or foster parents to struggle to make a healthy connection to their child. This is known as blocked care. This isn’t a healthy place for the children or the adults. It can feel scary and overwhelming for those experiencing it and hard to know how to move into a healthier place.

When I understood what was happening to me, I found myself in a better place to do something about it. Compassion fatigue doesn’t mean there is no compassion or empathy, but that the person experiencing it is struggling to access it. What they need is compassionate support from others.

If you’re a foster or adoptive parent and recognise that you’re experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue, please follow this series of articles as we share some steps you could take that may help you move into a healthier place, and explore some things that all foster or adoptive parents could put in place that may help guard against experiencing it in the future.

[i] University of Bristol (2016) Compassion fatigue widespread among foster carers. Available here.

Other articles in this series

Compassion Fatigue: Five things you can do

Compassion Fatigue: Five things you can do

It can be so difficult to recognise and acknowledge the signs of compassion fatigue. Here are five things you can do if this is where you find yourself today.

Read more
Compassion Fatigue: How to help

Compassion Fatigue: How to help

What to do if you’re alongside someone who might have compassion fatigue, whether they have identified it as this or not.

Read more

You might also be interested in

Stability Part 1: The role the Church can play

Articles

Stability Part 1: The role the Church can play

This month, we’re focusing on the theme of stability. Our desire is for children and young people not just to experience initial stability, but ongoing security, safety and love with relationships that remain consistent and ongoing in their lives.

Read more
Brighton Marathon: Verity’s story

Stories

Brighton Marathon: Verity’s story

We caught up with the amazing Verity, who is running the Brighton Marathon for Home for Good.

Read more
Back to school

Articles

Back to school

School, and the return to it after the summer holidays, can be particularly challenging for children who have had a difficult start in life.

Read more
Compassion Fatigue: How to help

Articles

Compassion Fatigue: How to help

What to do if you’re alongside someone who might have compassion fatigue, whether they have identified it as this or not.

Read more

Connect locally

I would like to find out what is
going on in my area

Connect Locally

Keep up-to-date

I would like to stay up-to-date with Home for Good's news and how
I can give, pray and get involved to help vulnerable children.

Home for Good will never pass on your details to third parties for marketing purposes and you can unsubscribe from our communications at anytime by emailing [email protected].

reCAPTCHA helps prevent automated form spam.