How To Set Expectations For A Teen Who’s Never Had Any.

Author of 4 books, podcaster, parent trainer, wife and mother.

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You get the call from a case manager asking you to take in a teenager recently placed in foster care. Or you've chosen to adopt a pre-teen. Now what? How do you successfully set boundaries for them? How do you ensure you and the child are on the same page when it comes to respect, guidelines, and family values?

We didn’t wade into the shallow end of a heated pool, so-to-speak, when we began our foster care journey. We were pretty much tossed into the deep end. Our license was completed in a very short 4 weeks and the calls started rolling in. We were often unprepared, which is to be expected. This was also very much the case when we took in our first teenager. While we had served as youth pastors for nearly a decade before our first teen arrived, everything we thought we knew about them went right out of the window when we were suddenly parenting one!

She was a good kid. Great kid, in fact. Respectful, friendly, fun to be with, and 100% participatory when it came to family activities. But, she was still a teenager. She was a 15-year old kid who had her own ideals, feelings, and thoughts on the world around her. Plus, she had come from very difficult circumstances before living with us. Her world was chaotic and she really had no boundaries or expectations before joining our family. Now, suddenly, she was in a brand new home, with a brand new family, trying to figure out which way was up. Mike and I had to figure out appropriate boundaries for her, what hills to die on when it came to discipline and respect, and how to guide her through life, and the trauma she’d experienced before coming into our home.

This was way different than anything we had experienced on the foster care journey previously. We had already taken in many younger children, even babies. Now, we were in a whole new arena.

The question, for us, was how. How do we successfully set expectations right out of the gate, for this child who never had any? How do we set rules and guidelines? These are the same questions you probably have if you’re in this situation. Here are 7 principles we’ve learned over our 15 year journey, and from 3 different occasions when a teenager entered our home through foster care…

  • Have an intentional conversation. When a teenager, or older child, first enters the home it is important to make a special time to sit down and go over expectations. I am a firm believer that food makes all conversations better. So is drink. Fix a good snack, a cup of hot chocolate, have a bowl of ice cream or travel to a local coffee shop. Make this a time just for you and your teen.
  • Listen first. No one wants to feel invisible, but for a child who is being uprooted, invisibility feels all too real. Get to know your teen first. Ask about what he or she likes to eat, what their favorite color is, and what they like to do in their free time. Offer to buy the type of shampoo or deodorant they like best. Welcome them to your home as you would a guest.
    For a child who is being uprooted, invisibility feels all too real.
  • Explain why. Let your new child know that this family has expectations. Expectations are for everyone’s safety and well-being. In my home I may say something like, “I’m so glad you are here. I know it’s hard to come into a new place and have to learn all these new ways of doing things. I want to talk with you about some of our expectations. While you’re here it is our responsibility to keep you safe above all else. Our rules are so that everyone in our home stays safe and healthy.” For a child who has never experienced boundaries, it is important to let them know why the boundaries exist in the first place.
  • Start small. Choose just a few things that are most important in your family. All families are different so choosing just a few specific values will help your teen adjust and be successful in this new environment. Be specific and clear.
  • Some rules are unbendable. Some rules transcend culture. Every person that enters our home must not participate in illegal activity. We do not tolerate drug use or underage drinking, to name a few. We also do not tolerate unsafe behavior that makes other people in our home unsafe, let alone the child who is behaving this way.
  • Some rules point to the culture of a family. These are your personal non-negotiables. For example, we do not allow phones, belching or potty humor at the dinner table. You will have different rules for your family and likely your teen will have been raised with a family culture that is not like mine or yours. We set expectations so that our teen knows how to function well in our specific home. Respect for the values of others is a skill they will one day need to carry into a job, dating relationship or marriage.
  • Some rules are flexible. Some rules can bend or change over time. A child who enters my home at 15 may have an early curfew but as they grow in maturity and trust that curfew may become later. We may also allow them to watch the shows on television they like, even if they are not what we prefer (providing they are appropriate for the child to watch).

This is not an exhaustive list, obviously, but you get the idea. The biggest lesson we’ve learned in parenting teenagers, through foster care, and later permanency, is patience. Remaining calm, but firm, on expectations, guidelines, and boundaries is a game-changer for any parent, but especially foster and adoptive parents who may be caring for a child from a traumatic past. Rest assured- while it may not always feel like it, you are making a great impact in the life of this precious teenager you are caring for!

Do you have experience in parenting teenagers through foster care? Have you adopted older children? Share your story with us in the comment section below.

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Mike and Kristin Berry are the Co-Founders of The Honestly Adoption Company and have been parents for nearly two decades. They are the authors of six books, and the host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is the executive assistant to Mike and Kristin Berry. And she is the best in the land. In addition to providing a warm and friendly response to the many emails our company receives on a weekly basis, she also manages Mike and Kristin’s speaking and meeting schedules, and makes sure that team events go off without a hitch.

Nicole Goerges

Nicole Goerges is a Content Contributor & Special Consultant for The Honestly Adoption Company. She works with Mike and Kristin as a recurring co-host for the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and co-host of Kitchen Table Talks, exclusive video content for Oasis Community, along with Kristin. She is a fellow adoptive mom, and former foster parent.

Matt McCarrick

Matt McCarrick is the Content Production Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. If you’ve loved listening to our podcast, or enjoyed any of the videos trainings we’ve published, you have Matt to thank. He oversees all of our content production, from video edits, to making sure the tags are correct on YouTube, to uploading new videos to Oasis, to hitting publish on a podcast episode, he’s a content wonder!

Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson is the Community Engagement Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends the bulk of her time interacting with, and helping, people through our various social media channels, as well as providing support for Oasis Community members through chat support or Zoom calls. In the same spirit as Beaver, Karen is also passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and supported. Karen is also an FASD trainer and travels often, equipping and encouraging parents.

Beaver Trumble

Beaver Trumble is the Customer Care Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. Chances are, if you have been in need of technical support, or forgotten your password to one of our courses, you have interacted with Beaver. He is an absolute pro at customer care. In fact, he single-handedly revolutionized our customer care department last year. Beaver is passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and encouraged.

Kristin Berry

Kristin Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Content Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends most of her time researching and connecting with guests for our podcast, as well as direction, designing and publishing a lot of the content for our social media channels, blog and podcast. She loves to connect with fellow parents around the world, and share the message of hope with them.

Mike Berry

Mike Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Marketing Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. He spends the bulk of his time and energy designing and building many of the resources you see within our company, as well as social media and email campaigns. His goal is to use media as a means to encourage and equip parents around the world. He is also the co-host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.