Vicarious trauma and child protection

I came to understand that my exposure to other people’s trauma had changed me. I came into the work with a burning passion and a tremendous commitment, but few other internal resources. I did the work for a long time with very little ability to integrate my experiences emotionally, cognitively, spiritually or physically.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky-Trauma Stewardship

Child protection workers and other adults supporting children and youth who have been traumatized take important steps to ensure young people have a safe place to live. Learning about and hearing children’s stories of violent or abusive events can have strong impacts on everyone. Human beings are interconnected and interdependent. This means we are affected by one another and may need support ourselves. Vicarious trauma is a term that describes being impacted by someone else’s trauma.  It is part of the trauma spectrum.[Jackson. C. 2013. Recognizing and preventing vicarious trauma: a holistic approach]

Understanding the signs and symptoms can help to protect against the negative effects of “secondary trauma” that can also be referred to as “vicarious trauma” or “compassion fatigue”.

The ABC’s for prevention of vicarious trauma.[See Northeastern University: Introduction to Vicarious Trauma for Victim Services. presentation]

  • Awareness - make sure you are talking with your resource worker and other foster parents about the risk of compassion fatigue and how the work is impacting you.
  • Balance - create balance in your life, it is important that you develop a plan for self-care that is supported by the agency and your family.
  • Connection - make it a priority to stay connected with yourself, to others and any spiritual or inspirational practices that comfort you.

Four factors that increase your risk:[David Conrad, Coordinator of the Secondary Trauma Prevention Project in Colorado, offers 4 possible factors that contribute to the risk of developing compassion fatigue. See: Conrad article.]

1. Empathy: Empathy is needed to care for traumatized foster children but if foster parents over-empathize or over-identify; they place themselves at risk for internalizing the children's trauma.

2. Insufficient Recovery Time: Foster parents may hear similar, horrific stories over and over again, often seven days a week without the respite needed to heal or get some distance from the stories. Thus, an accumulated secondary trauma load builds and can lead to their own experience of trauma.

3. Unresolved Personal Trauma: Many foster parents have had traumatic experiences in their own lives. To some extent, the pain of their own experiences can be "re-activated" by the trauma stories of their foster children, causing an increased risk for internalizing the children's trauma.

4. Vulnerability of children and youth: Children and youth are completely dependent upon adults for their emotional and physical needs. When adults mistreat children, it evokes a strong reaction in any person who cares about children. Foster parents are at risk for these strong emotional reactions and their inability to change the children's situation can make them more vulnerable to vicarious trauma.

It is important for child protection workers to understand the specific nature of vicarious trauma in order to develop a plan for prevention.

One way of protecting yourself is be aware of the signs of vicarious trauma:

Physical Signs of Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma

  • Exhaustion – feeling exhausted when you start your day
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Increased susceptibility to illness – getting sick more often

Behavioural Signs and Symptoms

  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Anger and Irritability
  • Avoidance
  • Impaired ability to make decisions
  • Problems in personal relationships- feeling impatient with friends and family who don’t understand the nature of fostering
  • Compromised care

Psychological signs and symptoms

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Insensitivity to emotional material
  • Distancing- avoiding friends and family becoming increasingly isolated. Not having the patience or the energy/interest to spend time with others.
  • Doubting yourself - feeling unskilled as a foster parent
  • Depression - difficulty sleeping, impaired appetite, feelings of hopelessness and guilt
  • Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy
  • Cynicism- expressing cynicism towards your fellow foster parent group, your workers, children and/or your family and friends
  • Resentment- resenting demands that are being put on you by everyone
  • Dread of working with certain workers
  • Feeling helpless - you feel unable to make a difference in your foster children’s lives
  • Frustration - being unable to help because of situational barriers, lack of resources in the community or your own limitations
  • Problems with intimacy
  • Intrusive imagery
  • Loss of hope-losing hope for our youth (that they will ever get better) and maybe even hope for humanity as a whole

If you recognize that you are experiencing these signs or symptoms, seek support for yourself. It’s not the time to ‘suck it up’ or ‘tough it out’. Talk with someone you trust and don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek professional help. Vicarious trauma is to be expected for those in daily touch with young people’s trauma.  Protecting children is such important work, be sure to care as much for yourself on a day to day basis.


  • Dr. Gabor Maté speaks about the importance of self-care. Watch this video
  • Equip Health Care: Tools and research to support trauma and violence informed care
  • Dr. Christina Jackson presents a holistic approach to vicarious trauma. Presentation


  • Marc Parent. Turning Stones: My Days and Nights with Children at Risk.
  • Laura van Dernoot Lipsky: Trauma Stewardship. An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others.

See also: National Child Traumatic Stress Network (US): Child Welfare section

Further Reading & Resources