This week has been a difficult one in our household. J, one of my younger foster children has been having trouble at school with both authority and other students, M, my fostered young person, has been having GCSE assessments, contact is looming for J which upsets him for days afterwards, Hubby has had a tough week at work and my stress levels have been through the roof.
Late at night when I’m lying in bed with my heart still racing after M has slammed her bedroom door… again after I dared to suggest that her screen time was up, I’ve questioned why we foster, that I need respite, that I should stop drinking coffee and that living alone on a deserted island is the way forward!
Stress and being a foster carer are closely linked. Your Looked After Child will often be dealing with internal demons, even after they are settled with you without adding family contact which will usually come with its own special bag of stress, even if it goes smoothly. When I know contact is approaching, particularly for J, my stress levels build gradually as the date approaches so I can only assume this is doubled or tripled for him. A week before we are due to meet with his birth mum or dad his behaviour deteriorates and whilst I know the reason, I can feel myself getting agitated and stressed.
Then add in your own birth children, relationships, work, baskets full of laundry and life in general. After gripping the steering wheel so hard I left marks as M was arguing that all her friends were going to the party on Friday night, I knew I needed to stop and assess before my stress got the better of me.
Other stressful factors for foster carers include working with children with learning disorders or emotional trauma, dealing with a variety of professionals often coming to your home, who can offer advice but also add to your stress and the unique strain of saying goodbye to a fostered child if they move on, return to their family or are adopted.
A physically or emotionally exhausted foster carer is not going to provide the best care to Looked After Children or your own birth children and if you foster as a couple, it can put a tension on your relationship. But most of all, your own personal wellbeing is important for your own sanity and health as stress does horrible things to your body and mind.
What can you do to minimise stress?
You’ll know what works best for you even if it’s just a cup of coffee with friends but for me the key things are:
- Being organised. This is number one for me and although Hubby laughs at the planner stuck on my fridge door, it is my life saver. Everyone knows what they are doing on any given day, I know what foster meetings are coming up, the kids know what after school clubs they are going to and I can plan my life. The only person I can’t wrangle with my planner is Hubby as he laughs in the face of plans and I let him live in his happy chaos!
- I am not a Hero! Or an Angel or a Saint! Don’t try to be perfect, it just won’t happen and you’ll end up exhausted and burnt out. Make sure that you are not the only one doing everything. Children should have chores to learn that the laundry fairy is a myth and that washing up is not done by imps. I share out age appropriate chores and my rule is if you can use a smart phone, laptop or game console, then you can do chores. Hubby has chores too but he’s harder to motivate as he just hides the remote control.
- Support. Make use of the professional support offered to foster carers in your area or by your agency. Do you have a local support group where you can share problems or ideas? I regularly go to a foster carer group where we often just sit around having coffee and chat but it’s good to know these people understand our own distinctive variety of stress. Training is also a great way of meeting other foster carers and I’m still in touch with people I met on my Skills to Foster course years ago. Support doesn’t have to be confined exclusively to the fostering community, an aerobic or yoga class or just meeting up with friends for cake can be all you need to make you feel you can cope with the coming week.
- Respite. Respite is recognised as a way to support carers and to give them a much needed break. It doesn’t suit everyone and if you feel your Looked After Child will have negative feelings of rejection and it could jeopardise the placement, it may not be the best option for you without careful planning and discussion. Respite can be taken if you need to spend time with your spouse, have an important occasion coming up such as a wedding where you don’t feel it’s the best environment for your little ones or if you just need a break. Looking after children who need a lot of emotional support is draining, especially if you are fostering children with disabilities or mental health disorders.
Having a break does not mean your weak; it means you are human and it will make a huge difference to your own mental health. As a foster carer, you have to put yourself first as you are one of the most important people in your children and foster children’s life and if you don’t function effectively, they won’t be able to. I am a great believer in the power of coffee… and cake!