Stressing out about foster carer stress

All of us who are parents are familiar with the stresses that can be involved in raising children.  Imagine then how difficult this would be if these ‘normal’ stresses were exacerbated by the impact of early childhood trauma.  That’s the daily parenting scenario that faces many foster and adoptive parents in Northern Ireland, across the UK, and in many other countries across the world.  If parent/carer stress is experienced within the confines of boundaries, without it leading to negative consequences, then it can be a source of stimulation and an opportunity for growth.  In contrast, stressed-out parents who are irritable, uncommunicative, critical and harsh in their parenting style are more likely to cause problematic behaviour in their children, which in turn results in further parental stress, thus creating a vicious circle.


The Care Pathways and Outcomes study is focused on understanding if the experiences of children and parents/carers are different across the various placement types.  Parental/carer stress is seen as central to unravelling some of these differences.  As such, the issue of parenting/carer stress was examined in the previous phase of the study, applying Abidin’s (1995) Parenting Stress Index (PSI/SF).  We found a much higher percentage of foster carers scoring within the abnormal range on the ‘total stress’ component of PSI, compared with adoptive parents.  These findings are both surprising and counter-intuitive.  This is because foster carers are part of a formal care system, with social workers supporting them and the children they are caring for.  This is not the case for adoptive parents and their children, who have no formal access to social service support, yet they appear significantly less stressed.  How can this be?

parent stress re-sized

Several studies have explored stress experienced by foster carers and have found evidence of strain, anxiety and depression related to the stressors of the caregiving role.  Research evidence consistently demonstrates that children in care have higher emotional disturbance than the general population.  Yet, there is an expectation that when children come into care, their new care placement will ‘provide compensatory experiences of care that enable their positive development’.  Given the previous experiences of these children, carers are tasked with providing a substitute nurturing and safe family home for children who typically have medical and health problems, dysfunctional attachments, academic and cognitive problems, and behavioural and psychiatric disorders.  However, the same can also be said for adoptive parents, so why the differences in stress levels?

There is some indication that the lives of foster carers appear more complicated than those of adoptive parents in terms of the logistical pressures of caring.  They are expected to manage a greater degree of relationships with birth family members than adoptive parents, their own family tensions, the risk of placement disruption, the potential for complaints or allegations, and social work involvement.  All of these factors can make fostering a very difficult task.  Furthermore, children tend to be placed earlier in adoption than foster care, so there is a decreased probability that the adopted child will have experienced significant trauma as a result of maltreatment and witnessing the breakup of the family home.


There have been clear indications from this study that the experience of parent and carer stress may be different between foster carers and adoptive parents, and this can impact on placement stability.  It will continue to be important to examine if these differences remain, as the young people progress through the late teenage years and into early adulthood. We will aim to further explore the reasons for these apparent differences, and to examine the impact this may have on placement stability and other outcome measures.

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7 Responses to Stressing out about foster carer stress

  1. Karen Sharkey says:

    Very interesting blog. Early intervention is key in supporting fostercarers through the daily stresses fostering can bring.

    • Dominic McSherry says:

      Thank you for your comment, Karen. It is clear from our findings that foster carers need and value support, and that the earlier this can be offered the less likely that problems will escalate. We also believe that the HSC Trusts are acutely aware of the need to ensure that foster carers are properly supported to help ensure placement stability for young people in care, and hope to see this being reflected more in practice across Northern Ireland.

  2. Mary Slevin says:

    And what support is there for these Foster Carers ! !

    • Dominic McSherry says:

      Thank you for your comment, Mary. It was clear from our findings that many foster carers valued the support that they received, but that some did not feel that these adequately addressed their needs. We believe that the HSC Trusts are acutely aware of the need to support foster carers so as to help ensure stability for young people in care, and hope to see these supports being further enhanced in the time ahead.

  3. Emma says:

    There’s little appreciation of the stresses we face, as others around the child are M-F 9-5 whereas we live 24/7 with the trauma that a child has endured. Many carers see asking for help as a weakness, support from other carers is vital. SW’s should see support groups as imperative and not a chore in addition to their workload. As the report states, we have to balance the demands of the social workers, parents, adopters, sibs with other carers, unfamiliar schools alongside the needs of the child, whilst trying to build attachments and offering rountines and normality.
    When sat in meetings booking a date, ‘proffesionals’ consult diaries and don’t take into account the foster carers prior commitments, and carers will say they were too intimated to say ‘I’ve got my own childs assembly that morning’ so stresses are caused trying to balance parenting and joint parenting.

  4. Emma says:

    In addition to the above, theres also stress caused when a meeting is booked and no consideration is made for the child we foster being at home (preschooler/holidays etc) and then there being no appreciation that we can’t leave just lac with a friend or neighbour (like we may do with a birth child) due to safer caring and the child having attachment issues, where changes in routine need to be planned with military precision and new people introduced carefully.

    The number one issue is the fact everyone else believes they know the child better, even though we are the ones with them 24/7. Causing stress when decisions are made, that we know the child cannot cope with.

    • Dominic McSherry says:

      Thank you so much, Emma, for your thoughtful comments and for taking the time to do this. It is very much appreciated. It is so important in the midst of these academic discussions about the lives of young people in foster care, and their foster carers, that we listen to and acknowledge the views of the young people and the carers themselves. The expertise that foster carers have about these systems and their in-depth understanding of the lives of the young people they are caring for needs to be brought to the centre of decision-making processes. Systems work best when there is good communication, understanding, and respect between the consistent parts. If not, we see unnecessary breakdown, in the case of the foster care system, that can be emotional breakdown due to stress and also placement breakdown due to a lack of effective early intervention. These are key issues Emma, and thank you for highlighting these as key issues to examine as this study progresses.

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