Fostering teenagers In foster care
Teens in the Foster Care System Still Need a Family
May is National Foster Care Awareness Month, and this year, we are collecting stories from our Foster Parents and team to share with you over the month. FosterVA, which Extra Special Parents lead, hopes these stories might inspire you to get involved in your community as a support or even become a foster parent in Virginia yourself! A contact link is at the bottom of this blog if you'd like to learn more.
Fostering teens has been where I have found my niche as a foster parent. Since I began my profession working with youth, I found that out of all the populace I've worked with, I found my stride working with teenagers. Now, this isn't to say that the 12 and under crowd wasn't enjoyable, but there was a challenge working with the teens that caught my interest.
At the start of my career, I worked at a therapeutic boarding school for boys that hosted youths between the ages of 12 and 17, which created a diverse student population. Given that the program was treatment-focused, you can assume that the students were not there because everything was peaches and rainbows at home. For one action or another, they landed in the place where we'd eventually meet.
By this point, you might be asking what the challenge was in working with these teens, and it's a simple yet complex thing to do: gain their trust.
Many students came into the program with the preconceived idea that they would just breeze through by crossing their T's, dotting their I's, and telling everyone what they wanted to hear, as they have repeatedly done. Knowing this, what service would I be doing them if they were to leave the program with nothing gained?
I had to be ready and willing to deal with the arguments, the lies, the anger, the "So, am I supposed to talk to you about my feelings or something?" with a smirk on their face; deal with the tactics they used to push everyone else away and show that I am still there.
Through that level of dedication, I built a trusting relationship with the teens I worked with. They grew comfortable enough to let me in on what they were going through.
Once that level of trust was established, working with my boys became much easier. We still had our fair share of issues to sort and deal with, but the time it took to sort it out was significantly less than before. They were more willing to listen to what I had to say and apply it, rather than fire back an argument, because of the newfound respect in our relationship.
By this point, I felt like I was helping them and that by the time they completed the program, I was confident that some of them had learned a thing or two. The best part of the situation was seeing where they started and the change that came when they finished. I had the privilege of being a part of a success story.
The time spent and the memories created during my time at the school had a lasting impression. Though my time at the school ended years ago, some students have since sent updates of their lives, including successful military careers, stable jobs and housing, and continued sobriety.
"Helping youth identify what makes healthy relationships and work on that foundation is critical to the relationship's success."
Recently, I learned a new phrase used when describing some foster children: unicorn kids. A unicorn kid is typically what a prospective foster parent will describe as the type of placement they want: very young, with minor to no medical or behavioral issues, and an absolute delight to be around all the time.
The chance to have a placement like that is about the same as spotting a unicorn.
When I became a foster parent in August 2019, I already knew the age group I wanted. Not only did I desire to serve the greater need, but I also had the experience as a youth worker. There is very little that can prepare you for being a parent.
August 1st, 2019, was the day of my first placement, and reality sank in after the case manager left. I recall thinking I've had several first-time interactions with kids before, so this will be no different. As I was soon about to understand, this was different from the boarding school where I was used to doing several student intakes.
This was all happening IRL ( in real life) and in my living room, and I was incredibly nervous. He was 12 years old, with a birthday only days away. After he put his things in his room, he returned to where I was in the living room and said, "Uhhh… So, what's for dinner?" That was the icebreaker that kicked off our relationship.
Throughout the following year, I learned his story and was able to help him improve on some of his behavioral concerns before he found his permanency. I have since had the opportunity to foster five more teens with another teen placement pending.
Throughout this time, I've come to understand an essential aspect of fostering teens: These are older age kids who had already lived several years of their lives before they even knew you existed. They have memories of a life with other parental figures and relationships they may still share with their birth parents. As a foster parent, it is pretty unrealistic to expect a great relationship.
Youth in foster care have experienced multiple healthy and unhealthy relationships. Helping youth identify what makes healthy relationships and work on that foundation is critical to the relationship's success. It will take months or even years of experiencing the good and the bad with your family and knowing that you won't give up for them to feel like they belong. You must realize their actions are their own and do not reflect on you as a parent.
Often these teens come with a history of trauma: abusive or neglectful homes, multiple foster placements, treatment facilities, and feel a complete lack of control over their situation. The behaviors like running away, avoiding deep conversations, and disrespectful tendencies are often techniques for them to control a situation. As their foster parent, we need to understand how to help them through the problem while simultaneously regulating our emotions and not taking the youth's actions to heart.
Fostering is no small feat. The most crucial aspect to understand about fostering is that they all want to belong, whether your placement is 6 or 16. At one point, all parents were new parents and had to learn what it meant to care for one another at all phases of their life. Knowing our triggers and what we need to do to self-regulate is crucial to parenting.
Getting into a power struggle with someone who does not know how to self-regulate is a recipe for disaster. Instead, try providing options and insight into the situation, such as when a youth is visibly frustrated, offering them a place to blow off steam before coming back to solve the issue.
Know that whatever the case, your agency representative will be available to assist you. Parenting will be tough for all ages, but when you consider fostering, consider the love you can provide to a teen in need.
Are You Ready To Learn More?
FosterVA is always ready to meet new families interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent. If this has inspired you to take the next step towards supporting Virginia's foster youth, click the button below and fill out the form on our contact page.