Foster Care: Avoiding Foster Parent Burnout

A woman holds her head and cries, sitting on the floor in front of an unmade bed.

By: Courtney Edge-Mattos

According the the national average, nearly half of all homes licensed to provide foster care will quit within their first year of fostering.  That means if ten families open their doors, four of those families will close them in less than 12 months. 

What does that mean?  What is happening?

Fostering is hard.  There’s no gentle way to put it.  It impacts every facet of a fostering family’s life, from leisure time to work schedules, traditions and routines to time with your partner.

For some folks, it becomes quite overwhelming very quickly.  They feel afraid, alone, and unable to continue.  This isn’t because they are bad people, weak people, or inadequate parents.  They are human and, too often, not receiving the support they need.  They experience burnout.

JRI believes that this statistic can change.  These numbers don’t have to continue and if you are a new foster parent, you can look forward to a longer fostering experience if you can avoid burnout.  We want to help, so let’s read on and learn more.

What is Burnout in Foster Care?

Providing care to a child or youth who has experienced trauma is emotional.  Hearing about abuse and neglect, knowing that the children we serve have had hardships we would never wish upon a person, and learning of the struggles their families are facing is all emotionally difficult. 

When this, along with the busy schedule and commitments, becomes overwhelming, foster parents’ energy can be sapped. 

When foster parents begin to burnout, they struggle, feel ineffective, and unable to continue to serve children and youth.

Symptoms of Burnout

It can look different for everyone, but common symptoms associated with burnout include, though are not limited to:

  • Disrupted sleep
  • Intrusive thoughts about a child’s trauma or one’s own trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty forming sentences and thinking of words
  • Feeling overwhelmed by things not typically overwhelming
  • Reacting intensely to things that are not intense
  • Shortness of temper
  • Crying or extreme sadness
  • Isolating one’s self from supports
  • Physical health problems

When Does Burnout Happen?

It can happen at any time, but here are some common times when we most often see foster parents struggle:

  • Right after their first placement arrives (there’s a lot of adjusting going on for everyone)
  • When a child is struggling (it’s hard not to struggle with them and to not take difficult behaviors personally)
  • When a child is reunifying or being adopted (pre-grieving a loss is a thing, folks)
  • After a child reunifies or moves to an adoptive home (you are grieving)
  • When a child shares a trauma that was previously unknown (this is painful to hear and could be a trigger to a foster parent’s own trauma)
  • When a new placement arrives and a parent is still grieving their last placement
  • When there is a significant event going on within your family, like loss of a parent, illness, loss of a pet, loss of a job, older children moving out, etc.
  • If a placement ends suddenly

Reducing the Risk and Managing the Reality

Many folks are embarrassed to acknowledge burnout.  It feels like failure, especially when children are involved.  People think "I'm an adult.  I'm supposed to be in control, more evolved, stable.  I'm not supposed to need help."  

Guess what?  Adults also need help.  Everyone does, including you in the superhero cape (yep, we see you).

So what should you do?  What can we, an agency, do? 

Lots of things.  Hope is not lost, friend.  If we are pro-active and anticipate that this might happen, we can be open and honest about it and come up with effective solutions.  Here are a few ways to reduce the risk of getting bogged down in burnout.

  • Assemble Your Village: When planning to foster and going through the licensing process, talk with your people.  Siblings, close friends, your next door neighbor, colleagues, members of your place of worship, folks at the gym- if they are in your life, let them know about the new phase your life will take.  They will say “Oh my goodness, let me know how I can help!”  SAY YES!  Have them fill out a CORI form to be approved to provide short-term babysitting or pick-ups drop offs.  If they offer to throw you a foster family shower to get some items for a new child, SAY YES!  If they offer a free membership for the child, a lesson, or a tutoring session, SAY YES!  If they ask if they can swing by and entertain the kids while you catch up on housework/schoolwork/work-work/self-care, SAY YES!  If they would like to swing by with an iced coffee, SAY YES!  Say Yes and Reduce Your Stress.
  • Know Your Triggers and Coping Strategies: We all have lived a life.  If you’ve experienced things like parental substance use, domestic violence, assault, neglect, abandonment, rejection, or other painful things, it is wise to expect some of this to come back up over the course of fostering.  We encourage people to consider establishing a good, working relationship with a therapist to talk to about your past, cement some coping strategies, and feel emotionally strong as you begin (and continue) your fostering journey.  Engaging in therapy is not a liability or weakness; it is a sign that you are willing to acknowledge a need and to take action to heal. 
  • You Time: What replenishes you?  Are you a gym person?  A coffee shop sipper?  A Target wanderer?  A fishing fanatic?  A member of a religious or spiritual community?  Think about the very important self-care activities in your life.  Talk with your partner or village about how you can still do the most important thing.  Yes, your schedule is going to change, but find the most important restorative activity or investment you make in yourself and see how that can remain in your life.  Plan ahead!
  • Let It Out: Once you are a foster parent, you will have a Family Resource Worker (or Foster Parent Supervisor- the names can be used interchangeably).  This is a JRI staff member who meets with you (just you, the foster parent) monthly.  They are your person, your sounding board, your confidante.  Let them know when you start to feel yourself getting pulled under the waves of overwhelm.  They are not going to judge you, think less of you, or ridicule you.  They will strategize to find a way to help.  The sooner you seek support, the sooner we can come up with a solution.
  • Use Respite: Respite care is short term care for children and youth in our foster care program.  Respite homes are generally available on weekends and provide breaks for fostering families.  In a non-fostering family, folks take the kiddos to Grandma’s on the weekends and get to spend a parent-only weekend recharging their batteries.  For some reason, folks forget that fostering families may need the same opportunity.  Plan a respite weekend, so you can sit on the couch and watch bad reality TV, go to a yoga retreat, play a round of golf, or do whatever you like to do that replenishes your spirit.  Our respite homes are fully licensed, safe, and pretty darned fun!  Your kiddo will be cared for and you will be better able to care for them when you’re also cared for.
  • Take a Break: After a placement leaves, it is appropriate to need a break.  Some folks take only a few weeks, while others need up to a year.  There is no shame in needing a break.  Just because you need a pause does not mean you need to abandon fostering all together.
  • Be a Respite Home: Whether you are new to fostering and want a more gradual approach to the process, or you had a placement leave and aren’t quite ready to jump back in, respite parenting is a great option.  Want to be available only two weekends a month?  That’s fine, we can do that.  It gives you some scheduling flexibility, can allow you to assess the fit of different age groups of children in your home, and lets you hit the reset button.  If you've been experiencing burnout, this is a great option to re-engage as you heal.
  • Support Network: No one is going to get you like a fellow foster parent.  They know the struggles.  When new parents sign on, we try to match them with a Foster Parent Partner (an experienced foster parent).  Use that person!  Call them, text them, go grab a coffee together.  Additionally, attend Support Groups, held throughout the month at JRI, to get to know more foster parents.  You can babysit for one another, create playdates, and have a connection to someone who understands you because they’ve been there!

In Conclusion

The foster care crisis is not just a crisis of a lack of homes, but a loss of homes.  At JRI, we work hard to form close relationships with our fostering families, providing them with the tools to succeed.  Burnout is real, but there are also ways to reduce that risk and find solutions when it happens. 

If you think JRI has what it takes to support your fostering journey, please fill out an Inquiry Form and we will be in touch!


JRI Service Navigator

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Rachel has been a part of the JRI team since January, 2000. For over 20 years, Rachel has been working in the field of human services assisting families with accessing and navigating services. Rachel received her Bachelors degree in psychology and Masters Degree in Public Administration from Bridgewater State University. She was promoted in July 2005 to Family Networks Program Director where she closely worked with the Department of Children Families for 10 years ensuring that children and families received the highest quality of individualized services ranging from community based through residential care. Rachel is very dedicated to helping the individuals she works with and is committed to improving the lives of children and families. Rachel’s passion for creative service programming inspires her in her role as JRI Service Navigator.