Friday, May 27, 2016



I can't remember where I first heard the word used to describe emotional pressure.

I remember from French lessons as a child, being taught you put the stress on this syllable or that.

I remember something about a stress-fracture, something medical.

Then suddenly the word was taken over to mean being leaned on by life.

There used to be a phrase for people who could cope with all sorts of upsets, they used to say she had 'grace under pressure'. Nowadays someone is doing well if they are 'coping with the stress'. Or else they are 'stressed out'.

It's in my mind as I'm halfway through a training session about risk assessment. It's a Blue Sky online programme so you can sit at your kitchen table with a cup of tea and tap your way through at your own pace.  Quite fun actually. And you do get thinking about some of the material.

I've just finished a great module about SECONDARY STRESS.

I didn't know two things;

a) That I have got secondary stress.

b) It's possible that it's a good thing.

Secondary stress is what you get from having someone in your life who is stressed out.

Looked-after children almost always have stress in their lives, and as a foster parent they come into your life for sure, right into yourvery house.

So how does secondary stress work? Like this:

When you have responsibility for someone who is stressed out you have the stress of ensuring their environment and ongoing experiences help to reduce their stress. 

In fostering the first priority is to provide  a safe place for the child, so you have to avoid physical dangers like open fires and bottles of bleach.  That means you have to look at your home and its dangers.  To do that you have to use your imagination about possible negative things, and that's when secondary stress begins. There you are, in your own home, your own lovely homely home trying to imagine anything that could go wrong. As you make pictures of disasters involving kettles and coffee tables you get little kicks of anxiety. But it has to be done or else the child might hurt herself.

But there's bigger and better secondary stress to come.

Just as important as physical safety is emotional safety.  The foster parent does everything she can to comfort the child, to make them feel better.  You try to help them feel safety, to trust the adults who are looking after them. 

To do that you have to use your imagination about each child's particular plight.

You have to look into their heart and soul. And every time you do that you share their pain.

This is the mother of all secondary stress, and it's the foster parent's lot whenever she chooses to look at the world the way her foster child does.

You find yourself experiencing being unloved by someone you desperately want to love you. You experience loneliness, fear, anger, defeat, uncertainty, mistrust. 

You happily risk secondary stress to spend moments imagining the darkness of your poor little child's life. A poor little child the world has asked you to look after.

So, without thinking about how much of a piece of you gets eaten, you go there  in order to do your job the better.

You have a better idea of what the child needs because you've had a tiny taste of how it is to be that child.

Secondary stress can be a good thing if it helps you help the child and...

...and this is the big thing, for me anyway;

You know you are losing a bit of your inner peace in order to do a good thing better than if you didn't care enough to take the risk.

Because if you can help that child the better, you help yourself by knowing that it's in a good cause. Knowing you are fostering at the top of your game.

Obviously; if the going gets hard you get on the blower to your SW, so monitoring yourself is important.

But on the whole, I like my secondary stress, it means I'm doing my best to do my best.

Having said that, I've switched to decaf tea recently...


  1. Great blog post. I think there is a way of setting this up so that piece of you does NOT get eaten! Haven't always been successful in this but being empathic also requires us to practice healthy detachment in order to stay well and resilient enough to care for our children. And by generating our own alternative calm and resourceful states we can to some extent at least reduce our child's stress rather than take it on ourselves. I guess it's a finely tuned balancing act.

  2. Thanks Harvey. I've kind of settled for taking some hits of secondary stress in the line of duty, but aim to keep it in check...