FosterWiki Opinion Piece

Finding Balance in Fostering

Finding balance in Fostering

The importance of taking a break and switching off as a foster carer

Author: Carolyn Moody MBE

“Carolyn is a multi-award winning foster carer with an extraordinary wealth of experience who in 2022 was awarded an MBE for her services to fostering over a 20-year period. Carolyn is a specialist in disability and autism and has achieved extraordinary outcomes over the years for the children and young people in her care, and has contributed extensively to the wider fostering landscape and brings the richness of her unlimited knowledge and experience to this important FosterWiki page.”
Sarah Anderson, Founder FosterWiki

Introduction to finding balance in fostering

‘Switching off’ as a foster carer is being able to take a break from your fostering responsibilities to give yourself the opportunity to relax, recharge, and focus on your own well-being, involves temporarily disconnecting from the demands of foster care to prevent burnout and maintain your physical and emotional health.

However, this isn’t as easy as it sounds and if foster carers are not careful, they can end up with secondary trauma, compassion fatigue or burnout because of the challenges that come with fostering children, often as a result of the child’s trauma.

We understand how important the child’s reaction to breaks is and understand why some foster children may be worried about their foster carer taking a break, including trust issues, routine disruption, and the need for communication.

Equally important is providing individual attention to birth children in fostering families to help them adjust and feel loved and supported.

It is so important that we address the challenges foster carers face in finding a balance between caring for children and taking care of themselves.

At the end of the day, a burnt-out foster carer with secondary stress disorder and compassion fatigue will be unable to meet the needs of their foster children and provide stable loving homes, which also leads to resignation and low retention of foster carers.

The Significance of ‘Switching Off’ as a Foster Carer

Switching off is essential for foster carers, as the role can be emotionally and physically demanding.

  • It allows you to find moments to relax, regain energy, spend time with your own family and enjoy your own interests.
  • ‘Respite’ ‘short break’ and‘ annual leave’ means taking a break from your fostering duties for a while.

Impact on the Foster Carer

It can be difficult to completely switch off as being a foster carer is a full-time job that becomes a big part of your life.

There’s no ‘off’ switch when it comes to caring for a child’s needs, including their physical, emotional, and educational support.

The uncertainty surrounding the foster care system can be emotionally draining, foster carers often find themselves advocating for the child, which can be complex, exhausting and time-consuming. Constantly thinking about what’s best for the child because fostering is a round-the-clock responsibility putting their needs above everything else. It’s a selfless commitment that shapes how you live and make choices.

Top tip – Fostering isn’t just a job -it’s a way of living. It affects everything you do, from daily routines to major life decisions.

Taking a Break: A Vital Aspect of Foster Care

“Certainly, from my own perspective, I have learnt it is so important to find a good balance in having ‘respite’, ‘short break’ or a ‘holiday’ as this means taking a well-earned break to relax and have fun without the constant responsibility of caring for the children.

“The children we are caring for have been through difficult and upsetting experiences due to trauma, this also means children can be on high alert ‘hyper-vigilant’ and need a lot of attention.

“When we take some time out for ourselves, we can relax, and do adult things that we did before we became foster carers without all the fostering rules, and without looking over our shoulders. It’s great having a holiday with the children but it’s so important to have personal time without feeling like you are under constant scrutiny.

“Balancing responsibility with self-care. Switching off doesn’t mean neglecting your responsibilities as a foster carer, it’s about finding a balance that ensures both you and the foster children in your care receive the care and support you need to thrive. This is a crucial aspect of being a foster carer.”
Carolyn Moody MBE.

  • We can have adult conversations or discussions that involve topics beyond a child’s understanding.
  • We can dress and act as we please in our own homes.
  • Enjoy quiet and uninterrupted time for relaxation, meditation, or hobbies that are not child-friendly.
  • Meeting friends, going out to dinner, spending time with grandchildren, grown-up children, theatre, comedy club or attending adult events.
  • Having a drink, a drink together at home or going to the pub, as for many children alcohol can remind them of difficult times.
  • It’s also an opportunity to do things you enjoy, hobbies, outings, or personal interests that might not align with the children’s interests.
  • A break and a chance to relax and have some adult time for themselves.
  • Whilst it is a break from your fostering role it can also be a time to reflect on it away from the everyday challenges, looking through the lens of rest and relaxation helps you get things in perspective and helps you celebrate the overall positive impact you are having on children’s lives.

Top Tip- Foster carers absolutely need time for themselves so that they can continue providing the best possible care for the children in their care.

The Impact of Trauma on Foster Carers

“The impact fostering has on carers can often get buried in the misleading fostering narrative. When
portrayed in the media, in public and in recruitment marketing as a ‘spare room’ and ‘fun-filled family days’, it completely belies this complex skilled and very demanding role to something it’s not. This is often why no one can understand why foster carers should need any kind of break at all.”
Sarah Anderson, Founder FosterWiki

  • ‘Secondary trauma’, also known as ‘vicarious trauma’ or ‘compassion fatigue can occur when foster carers are exposed to the trauma or suffering of others.
  • The emotional impact on foster carers hearing children’s stories of significant trauma, abuse or neglect can be emotionally challenging and can affect a foster carer’s mental health. This can affect foster carers’ relationships with their own families, this is why regular breaks are important.
  • The trauma a child suffers can result in some challenging behaviours, this can lead to a constant need for vigilance and support, making it hard for foster carers to relax even when on a break, wondering what the situation will be on return.
  • Finding suitable carers to offer a break can also be challenging, which means foster carers might have limited opportunities for breaks or self-care.
  • Foster carers are deeply invested in the child’s growth and development, and they may feel personally responsible for helping the child succeed.
  • Foster carers step into a unique caring role, form strong emotional bonds, and genuinely care about the child and their future.
  • This emotional connection drives their sense of responsibility.

The Importance of Support and Self-Care

Given these challenges, it’s crucial for foster carers to have a strong support network, access to a break when they feel it’s needed, and opportunities for self-care to help them recharge and continue providing the best care for the children in their care. We hear a lot about foster carers feeling guilty about going away without foster children, a normal reaction.


  • Your foster child relies on you for care and support, and taking a break feels like you are letting them down.
  • You believe no one else will care for them as well as you do.
  • The strong emotional bond you share with your foster child can make you feel guilty about leaving them, as you worry about how they will cope.
  • Worrying about not being with them might trigger fears or anxieties for them related to their past experiences.
  • If you go away without them, they may not feel part of the family.

Top Tip – Remember the Importance of Self-Care, recognise taking breaks is essential for your well-being. If you are rested and refreshed you will provide better support and care to the child.

Challenges to Taking a Break

There are many reasons why it might be difficult for foster carers to switch off as foster carers often form strong emotional bonds with the children in their care. This attachment can make it hard to disconnect because they are genuinely concerned about the child’s well-being.

Here’s a case study:
Alex is a full-time foster carer, who looks after a young boy named Liam. He is now very much part of the fostering family and Alex cares a lot about Liam. Sometimes, Alex needs a short break to rest and spend some adult time. But because he cares so much about Liam, it’s really hard for Alex to stop thinking about him during this break. Alex worries about how Liam is doing, if he’s okay, and if the person looking after him is doing a good job. Even though Alex knows he needs the break to stay healthy and be a good carer, his strong feelings for Liam make it tough for him to relax and enjoy his time away.

  • This happens because foster carers become very attached to the children they care for.
  • While taking a break, it’s okay for Alex to check in with Liam’s carer to ease their worries. Knowing Liam is safe and well can provide peace of mind for both Alex and Liam.
  • Alex should lean on a support network, friends, family, or other foster carers, to talk about his feelings and concerns.
  • Sharing these emotions can be therapeutic and will help in realising you are not the only one who feels this way.

Top Tip – It’s essential for foster carers to take breaks and care for themselves. Self-care is crucial, in the long term it will provide the best support for children Fostering: Nurturing others while nurturing ourselves and our relationships

While fostering can limit some of the freedoms foster carers have, many find fulfilment in knowing they are making a positive impact on a child’s life. Balancing fostering responsibilities with personal time as a foster carer is a challenge, but it’s vital for maintaining a strong and healthy relationship.

Having healthy relationships with family and friends is essential this can set an example to children about how we maintain positive connections with loved ones. We must recognise the need to both foster and nurture relationships with our own family, in spending some quality time.

  • Fostering can limit the freedom of foster carers, they need social interactions and time for self-care and often having to plan for a break can add complexity to plans.
  • Foster carers often share responsibilities related to fostering, this shared responsibility can be rewarding but also demanding.
  • Foster carers often find themselves balancing the needs of the foster children with the needs of their own family and friends which can be challenging.
  • By being proactive and seeking support, when necessary, foster carers can find the balance that works best for them.

Taking a break: Understanding a child’s reaction

Children in foster care often have trust issues due to past experiences of instability and separation. Some children may not have developed healthy ways to express their emotions verbally.

When their foster carer plans to take a break, it can trigger fears of abandonment, leading the child to act out. Acting up before and after a break can be their way of showing that they are upset or anxious about the separation, it’s quite a common reaction, especially in the early days of the child coming into care, so we need to initially help the child cope so can have the break that is so integral to their ongoing care and our ability to give it to the very best of our ability.

  • Children often thrive on routine and predictability. When their carer takes a break, it disrupts this routine, causing anxiety and can result in challenging behaviour.
  • Talk to the child in a simple, reassuring way, assuring them that you will return so the child know they are cared about.
  • Talk to the carer providing the break to try and keep a consistent routine as much as possible during the break.
  • Discuss the worries in supervision and with the child’s social worker for guidance on helping the child handle breaks positively.

Supporting with a break

Involving children in the process of going on a break can empower them and make their experience feel less daunting, this also reinforces the idea that their opinions and feelings are valued.

Top Tip: Helping a foster child understand and enjoy a break with another carer, involves explaining to the child that it will be ok and reassuring them that this is a chance to create new memories with other safe caring adults. It’s about helping the child to feel safe and excited about trying new experiences, different activities, meeting new people and even a chance for them to have some time out.

  • For some children, experiencing going to another foster carer for a break can prepare them for transitions in their lives, and help them grow and adapt to different situations.
  • Involve them, communicate, explain why it is happening and assure them that it’s a temporary arrangement, ask for their input, any preferences or concerns,
  • Provide information, and pictures of the home and introduce them to the foster carer.
  • Create a transition plan for what to expect and when you will be picking them up. Let them pack familiar things.
  • When they return make sure you always ask them what they did, how it all went and what they enjoyed.

Balancing the Needs of Birth Children

For birth children, having a break and receiving individual attention can help them adjust to the challenges of fostering while ensuring they feel loved and supported by their parents.

  • It allows them to have some quality time with their parents or to do activities that cater to their individual needs and interests.
  • These breaks can help maintain a healthy balance within the family and ensure that birth children receive the attention and support they need, which can be especially important when fostering can be demanding and challenging for all involved.
  • Foster children like any children may sometimes be happy to have a break from their foster siblings to have individual attention, have more personalised activities and build new personal memories.

In conclusion

Foster carers carry out their role 24/7, yet despite this having a break is one of the hardest things to do for a foster carer for all the above reasons.

It is also difficult from a logistical point of view, it’s not a legal requirement and services are stretched, so often it is a low priority for them despite the possible impact on placement stability, consistent quality of care and retention.

It’s also important we have a break from the engagement with services, the responsibility of caring for such vulnerable children and at the same time being mindful of all the statutory regulations and minimum standards that underpin our role. A break is also needed from the admin, reporting and recording, the meetings, the phone calls and working with the extended teams and associated services.

Good fostering services and agencies will have breaks (‘respite’ or ‘holiday’) built into the fostering agreement they have with you, at a very minimum of 2 weeks per year. The good ones will also actively work with you to secure these breaks and build up networks of support around you, so when the child or young person goes to spend time with them they know them, feel safe and look forward to it.

Top Tip: Remember to have a break before you break, we are not superhuman, we are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and in order to keep doing them we need to switch off sometimes, just like everyone else.