We were under the impression that since we had spent years working with teenagers, through youth ministry, that we were prepared for a teenager to move into our home. We couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s an entirely different story when a teenager takes up residence in your home!
It was the winter of 2009 and we received a call to take a 17 year old girl into our home through foster care. As is the case, we knew very little about her story, where she came from, or even why she was in the system. We thought about it for a day and agreed to open our home to her.
She was kind, funny, engaging, and seemed to like the rest of our children. What we didn’t know was that we would learn some valuable lessons from her about fostering teenagers. The lessons came from the ‘other’ side of this child, which was manipulative, sneaky, derogatory and, at times, downright nasty and uncooperative. But we didn’t just quit when things started to go downhill, which tends to be the reaction from people.
We kept our nose to the grind and continued to love her and guide her the best way we knew how. Our expertise from youth ministry, over the years, helped with this, but we also put into practice some things that just naturally came to us.
It’s a big question- how do you successfully foster teenagers? We mostly learned by trial and error, but here are some of the big things we did, and you can do, to navigate the rough waters of this area of foster care:
1. Enter with eyes wide-open.
Prepare yourself to hear or see anything. The world of a teenager is already a torrent of emotions and feelings. Factor in sudden loss and separation from being placed in the foster care system, and it’s a full-blown hurricane. You may hear offensive language and you may see some shocking behavior. Don’t enter with naivety. You will have the wind knocked out of you. Keep your eyes open and expect anything!
2. Keep your heart open and compassionate.
Running in close second to keeping your eyes wide open, is keeping your heart open and compassionate. If you bring a child into your home with defenses up, or an expectation that they are going to be a “problem,” you will never see into their heart. Remember- most children in the system, especially teenagers, have come from very difficult places. They need an extra dose of compassion and love.
Place yourself in their shoes and you will see things completely different. Your heart will open wider than you thought possible.
3. Have clear boundaries established before he or she enters your home.
I cannot stress this enough. One of the first things that should happen after he or she arrives, is a sit down meeting at the kitchen table to go over guidelines. Obviously the child is going to be nervous or apprehensive because they’ve just been torn from an environment that was unhealthy, yes, but familiar to them, and contained their belongings.
Allow some time for them to adjust but then have a heart to heart. You will forever play catch-up on expectations and boundaries if you do not have this very near to the beginning of their time with you.
4. Stay in constant communication with the case manager.
We did this with the girl we took in back in 2009 and boy oh boy are we thankful we did. When she chose to lie to us, and eventually bolted from our house, the case manager was well-aware of the entire story. She was able to speak on our behalf and that was a huge relief.
My advice is to document everything, and I mean EVERYTHING that happens with the child. You will want this information if there are ever accusations or questions raised by the courts or the teenager.
5. Don’t fear the worst.
Easier said than done, right? I understand the apprehension with taking in teenagers. After all, they are like miniature adults in many ways. They can talk like adults (most of the time) and even reason like adults do (sorta). That can be intimidating. Add in some serious issues from where they’ve come from and it’s a recipe for trouble.
But this is the exception, not necessarily the rule. Sure, there are bad situations and some of those have caused big time issues for families, but don’t be afraid of this. Never allow your fear to direct your heart. Follow your heart and approach fostering teenagers with wisdom, but don’t give fear an ounce of leverage. If you are filled with fear, you’re not ready to foster teenagers.
6. Personally prepare yourself.
The biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone when it comes to fostering teenagers is to mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually prepare for their arrival. It will take a lot out of you, and for some, it could take more than you expected out of you. You must be in a good state personally or you will find yourself drained quickly.
If you don’t feel ready to take in teenagers, don’t! There’s no harm in raising your hand ahead of time and declaring “not ready.” Consequently, there’s a lot of harm when you sound the alarm after the fact. In many cases, the damage is already done.
The parting advice I would also offer is to do a lot of research. Ask a lot of questions, and take a lot of time to listen and learn. Fostering teenagers has some similarities to fostering younger children, but there are also some drastic differences. Dialogue with foster parents who have gone before you. It will make a world of difference.
We would love to dialogue with you over this. Feel free to ask any questions or bring up any situations you feel necessary.
Have you fostered teenagers? What are some other tips or advice you would offer?