Those of us who work to help others, often neglect ourselves.
Psychologists call the impact of our work, “vicarious traumatisation” (VT). In other words, dealing with the struggles of troubled young people can have a similar impact on us.

Tired - Sandoclr - iStock_000000053566XSmall

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/sandoclr

We empathise with them, we engage closely with them – this has an impact. The helper is affected.
Caring is hard. Keeping going is sometimes really hard. I discovered this the hard way…

What happened to me…

After around 5 years of dealing with sexual abuse everyday, I hit a wall. Here are some of the symptoms I experienced:

  • I was tried, though getting plenty of sleep
  • I was distracted and struggling to concentrate
  • I was getting irritable (more than normal!)
  • I was having joint and chest pains with no diagnosable cause
  • Headaches were frequent, as was shoulder and neck pain
  • I was feeling low, though without any obvious crisis to pin it on
  • My diet went to the dogs and my alcohol intake was rising slowly

There are lots of other symptoms of VT. These were just some of the ones I had. In short, I wasn’t myself, but there was no discernible physical cause.
After a good medical check up and taking advice from others in the trade, I came to this conclusion: I was burning myself out. The impact of dealing with really hard stuff, day in and day out, was taking its toll.

What I did about it…

  • Spread my leave from work more evenly throughout the year – I was taking bigger blocks of leave in the summer and at Christmas, but the gaps in-between were too long. Planning time off more frequently, though for less time, made a positive difference. Physically I recovered more quickly. Psychologically, it was never too long before my next leave period. For foster carers, for example, I recommend that you insist on regular, predictable respite periods. Try it, you might be surprised…
  • Plan in some down-time during the week and stick to it – I decided that on Wednesday of each week, I wouldn’t see any children. I would use that day to complete referrals, catch up on recording, plan the next phase of work, attend meetings, conduct supervision with colleagues, etc. It was busy. But not with dealing in the challenges of other people’s trauma. On the occasions when I was less disciplined, or I had to see someone on a Wednesday, I noticed the difference. See how you can break up your work in a similar way.
  • Get some clinical supervision – this may be outside of your authority and not part of your agency’s policy. But anyone working with troubled young people should really see a clinical supervisor at least monthly. For me, this was a tectonic shift in my practice. It helped me to be more reflective about what I did. And more thoughtful about what I was bringing to the work with the young people. My side of the equation, if you like.

Clinical supervision can have two main functions, depending on the arrangement you have:

1.  It can be a sounding board for you to explore a case or cases with a skilled colleague, who can offer advice etc. to assist you. And, more importantly in my view…

2.  It can allow you the space to properly consider the way the work is affecting you. This in turn will help you see what you bring to the interaction with the young person. Remember, it’s a two-sided interaction.

  •  Leave work at work – I had gotten into some bad habits. For example, I was bringing work-related reading home almost every night – books, journals, research papers… I love to read and am extremely committed to learning more. But this habit was slowly grinding me down. I switched to getting to work a half hour early and reading there before I started work. Then at home, I took up reading fiction – or anything I fancied, just not work stuff. It helped me leave work at work.
  • Take a lunch break – I know, it’s almost impossible as there aren’t enough hours in the day anyway, right? Nope. You’ll work more effectively if you take a break. Better still, leave the building, even it’s just for 5 or 10 minutes. Fresh air, walking away and some physical separation will all help you get more out of your afternoon. I don’t always manage this myself, but I do this about 3 or 4 times a week. It’s a good habit. For foster carers, try to schedule a little time just for you – take it in turns with your partner to deal with the kids, so give the other a little “me” time. Find something that works for you…

Final thoughts…

We who look after troubled young people, if we do our job properly, will almost certainly pay a price for it. This is all the more the case if we work in a relational way – giving of ourselves more deeply to the work, letting the kids in on our lives a little.
If you’re a foster carer, I take my hat off to you! You have your service users living with you – we really are NOT worthy of you guys!
We all must take care to ensure that we are protected. That we are safeguarded against the rigours of dealing with other people’s trauma. We must take care to take care of ourselves. As best we can…

What do you think?…

These are just some of my experiences, things that have worked for me. You situation may be different
Please let me know what your thoughts are – what you’ve done to try and take a little more care of yourself. Please leave a comment below or click here.

Related previous post…

For a more thorough look at this subject, check out my eBook: Looking After No.1 – Self-Care for People Working with Troubled Children

Photo courtesy of © 123rf/Ion Chiosea (adapted)

Photo courtesy of © 123rf/Ion Chiosea (adapted)

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© Jonny Matthew 2016 (2013)