Cultivating Compassion Resilience: An Essential Staff Resource

Working on the frontlines of youth care is an impactful endeavor. Direct care staff spend almost all their working hours in a relational and caregiving capacity. They are present with youth on good days when growth and healing are seen, and on the most difficult days when youth experience an internal and external storm of distress and dysregulation. When symptoms of past trauma and mental health challenges escalate and threaten the safety of the youth and others.

Compassion Fatigue has been described as a “debilitating weariness brought about but the repetitive, empathetic response to pain and suffering”(LaRowe, 2005). Compassion Fatigue results from the interconnections of secondary and vicarious trauma and organizational burnout. When impacted, workers can demonstrate a gradual decrease of overall compassion, a reduced willingness to provide care, the adoption or presentation of client’s symptoms, and even blaming clients out of frustration and feelings of powerlessness. When these symptoms are present in our workforce, healing potential is decreased, and harm potential is increased. This impact can be modulated by workers and organizations with emphasis on cultivating compassion resilience and ongoing assessment of compassion fatigue.

Essential staff bear witness to youth’s past trauma every day. Directly, they listen to disclosures, they offer support and safety after nightmares, and intervene and provide grounding during flashbacks. Indirectly, they receive emotional transference in the form of verbal or physical aggression, they respond to self-injury and the emotional pain from internal wounds, they provide empathy presence during difficult family interactions, disappointments, and the many emotional experiences presented by the residential care journey. Research in trauma informed care and practice has taught us these experiences lead to higher risks of vicarious and secondary trauma. When compassionate adults hold space and bear witness to youth’s past trauma, they are at risk of experiencing and internalizing the same level of impact, symptoms, and perceptual changes caused by trauma.

Essential staff are prone to effects of organizational burnout due to imbalances between available resources and size and intensity of workload. Insufficient funding, frequent workforce changes and shortages, constant changes to regulations, policies, and procedures resulting in increased workload all create resource shortages. Recent trends in youth care, demonstrate increasing need for services as well as increasing complexity of needs requiring more intensive or specialized care. This has only been complicated by the challenge of providing services during a global pandemic.

Cultivating compassion resilience occurs by active engagement, development, and practice of key skills. We offer a template for creating compassion resilience plans to support development of five resilience skills: self-regulation, intentionality, perceptual maturation, connection, and self-care. Compassion Resilience Plans can be utilized for individuals, teams, and within supervisory or coaching contexts. To reach full potential of healing for youth we serve, it is critical we also invest resources cultivating compassion resilience of essential staff.


Jennifer Null, LMFT, RPT-S

Institute of Learning Director , Tanager Place-Meraki Institute of Learning