Managing Stress in the Delivery of Kinship Care
Why Self-Care Is Crucial for Caseworkers and Caregivers Alike
Human-services professionals often hear phrases like, “Care for yourself so you can care for others.” Delivering exemplary kinship care services means recognizing our role as caregivers for families in crisis. In the pursuit to care for others, however, kinship caseworkers and caregivers often rank their own needs as secondary. Child welfare is an environment that is always moving—it is constant and requires 100% of our attention—but caring for oneself does not distract from kinship care; it enhances it!
One way to foster mindfulness and stress management is through self-care (and guess what: it’s Self-Care Awareness Month). Whether you are a kinship caregiver, caseworker or practitioner in the field, self-care is necessary for mental and emotional well-being when faced with the daily stressors that may arise in kinship care. More importantly, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains, “taking care of yourself is a valid goal on its own, and it helps you support the people you love.”
The Importance of Self-Care for Kinship Caseworkers
According to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF), compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress (STS) disorder, is a set of observable reactions that naturally occurs within those who work with clients susceptible to trauma. These reactions mirror the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can include a combination of cognitive, behavioral, emotional and physical features. While human-services professionals overall are more vulnerable to developing this condition, there are various stressors unique to kinship care that may make its caseworkers particularly susceptible.
“The biggest stressors kinship caseworkers grapple with are managing the complex situations that kinship care brings and having the time necessary to meet those complex needs,” explains clinical coordinator and supervisor in Child and Family Services at ASCI, Nico’Lee Biddle, LCSW. “Unique stressors include an increased risk of secondary trauma, as the family situations are much more involved than in traditional foster care.”
ACF explains that addressing STS should be done at the individual and organizational levels in ways that both prevent and treat staff affected. ASCI is dedicated to prioritizing wellness at an organizational level by providing opportunities for staff to engage in various in-house wellness activities and events, such as exercise classes like yoga and Zumba; informational sessions on topics such as emotional healing, the benefits of essential oils and financial health; workplace gatherings like ice cream socials and group lunches; and more. Additionally, ASCI staff are encouraged to practice wellness individually with dedicated time off on Wellness Wednesdays and Thursdays. By creating an environment in which self-care is encouraged, staff can work to overcome their natural tendency to internalize trauma, while at the same time prevent other negative responses to stress, such as burnout.
Timothy Gonzalez, LCSW, owner and lead clinician at A Wellness Place LLC and former Vice President of Child and Family Services at ASCI, explains why it is important for leaders to have strong relationships with their teams in order to better recognize the signs of burnout. “Being in a professional relationship with your team and attuned to each member will serve so well when sudden changes surface,” he says. “These changes can potentially be observed in ‘soft signs’ that affect mood, communication, energy level or overall spirit; or can be seen in ‘hard signs,’ like significant dips in outcome numbers and paperwork submissions, complaints from consumers, increased call-offs, etc.”
Practicing self-care is imperative for kinship caseworkers, as a lack thereof can ultimately have negative effects on their mental, physical and emotional well-being, as well as those of the families in their caseloads. Biddle offers that the inability to practice meaningful self-care leaves caseworkers with little to no energy to effectively engage with families. “A caseworker may become so enmeshed with the families they service that they are never able to recharge,” she states. “Casework is one of the most difficult jobs a person can have; it is emotional, it is complicated, and it is human. It is impossible for a person to work at 100 percent all the time, if they never give themselves the same 100 percent.”
Given the fact that caseworkers’ schedules are intense and demanding, regularly practicing self-care can seem like an unattainable task. However, it is essential to prioritize and personalize self-care in order to squeeze it into one’s daily routine. More importantly, Gonzalez emphasizes why self-care should reflect one’s personal values and internal narrative: “Knowing [one]self is vital to knowing which self-care practice(s) is most compatible.”
The Importance of Self-Care for Kinship Caregivers
Dr. Marlynn Wei, contributing editor at Harvard Health Publishing, describes caregiver burnout as an example of how repeated exposure to stress can harm mental and physical health. “Chronic stress triggers a release of stress hormones in the body, which can lead to exhaustion, irritability, a weakened immune system, digestive distress, headaches, pains and weight gain,” she explains.
Additionally, the unexpected and prompt transition an individual must make when agreeing to become a child’s kinship caregiver can trigger multiple forms of stress and uncertainty.
“One of the biggest stressors for kinship caregivers is lack of time,” says Lydia Cooper, Family and Community Engagement (FACE) trainer at ASCI. “Training, doctor appointments, paperwork, home visits … that causes a lot of pressure. In addition to that there is the sudden realization that someone you love is in such bad shape that their children have been removed from them and the children may have been harmed. These emotional stressors that lie beneath the organizational pressures of the child welfare process often get shunted aside or buried, but they are always there,” she adds.
As it is for their caseworkers, self-care is also crucial for kinship caregivers, as it serves as a reasonable coping mechanism for stress. Cooper explains that the stress a caregiver experiences can be shared with the children in their care. “Children learn by example and imitation,” she says. “An unhappy adult may create all kinds of negative emotions in a child: fear, anxiety, guilt, etc.”
ASCI values the health and wellness of its kinship caregivers and seeks to relieve some of their stress by providing cost-free supports, such as a Kinship Closet
(a clothing bank), community garden, legal clinic, vision and dental clinics, support groups and in-home clinical services, to name a few. But while these free services may offset some of a caregiver’s many burdens, they cannot replace self-care.
According to Wei, one can practice self-care and purposefully activate the relaxation response to stress through mind-body practices like yoga, tai chi, meditation and deep-relaxation techniques.
While self-care is imperative for single caregivers, it is equally important that caregivers in committed relationships prioritize their time in order to maintain self-care. “Committed couples should plan a few minutes a day for a joint relaxation activity,” Cooper suggests. “As always, the best ideas come from the caregivers themselves.We have one couple that does self-care for only 30 seconds per day! They work different schedules, so every day as they meet each other coming and going, they stop and share a 30-second hug. For 30 seconds, they share their plans for the day and tell each other how much they love each other.”
Kinship care not only results in better outcomes for children in out-of-home care, but also provides a rewarding experience for both caregivers and caseworkers. That said, self-care must be an essential component of daily life to mitigate the stress that can arise from unexpected situations, a lack of time, lengthy processes, and primary and secondary exposure to trauma, which can negatively impact one’s ability to properly care for and serve the children to whom we are all so dedicated.