Understanding and Helping Teenagers in Foster Care

five teenagers hugging with a sky background 

How to help a teenager in foster care

Teenagers in Foster care have the same struggles as all teens but are more alone.

So how do you help a teen who is in foster care? When you ask first-time foster parents about what age they desire to work with, most will not say teens. Each stage of development can be difficult for a foster parent, whether diapers or tantrums or teens but the foster care system has foster youth of all ages.

Some will be in foster care short term. Other young people will be with their foster families until they age out of the child welfare system at 18 and have to find their own way in our world. When you age out of foster care with limited support after losing birth parents and all the mental health issues that follow, kids who have not found safety with family members or in a foster home will have a very hard road when they enter adulthood.

Still, perhaps the teen years are the most challenging and rewarding. Teenagers are trying to find their own identity to gain self-independence. I am sure you remember the challenges in your life but imagine being alone trying to find your way. Parents or guardians are trying to guide them, but as a teenager, you know best that a foster child is no different than any child. They need support from adults to help them when they fall and guide them into good choices.

Teens will often not show appreciation for anything you do for them, but they do in the reflection of time. They may challenge rules and expectations within your home and need to understand the why, not the because. 

They could show resentment because they are told to live with people they do not know. Still, they could also show gratitude for being safe at last after a challenging journey of childhood. There may be anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness, and broken trust, all of which are challenging to overcome. Teens also often seem withdrawn or depressed and may not wish to be included in their family activities, causing challenges at times. 

That may seem a lot for anyone to sign up to take on, but the reality is that half of the children in foster care are teens, and they need a person like you. No Foster parent is alone with a child. Your agency, if that is the Department of Social Services (DSS) or A licensed Child Placing Agency, every child has a team of professionals helping you and the teenager to be successful. 

So how do we work with these great teens? What do they want and need to succeed in placement and make real strides to become a successful adult? 

Thirteen ways to help a teenager feel safe and wanted in your foster home.

A teen needs and wants what every other child needs and wants (but maybe with a little added attitude). They want to feel heard, not just looked at for what is written about them in their file. 

  1. They want to be understood for who they are and to be accepted as is. 
  2. They need to feel validated in their feelings and respected for their knowledge and the things they have experienced. 
  3. Teens want to feel supported and guided into adulthood, even though they think they know it all. 
  4. If they fail, they need to know someone will be there to help them make sense of their world again. Mostly, foster teens want to feel loved. 
  5. Perhaps the most critical step you can take in helping your foster teen is the one that will take the most time, and that is trust-building. Have patience. 
  6. Do not expect teens to come to your home, trusting all that you say and do. After all, they have had years of adults letting them down. Just as with all children, do not make promises to them that you cannot keep. Once you break a promise, the trust will become further from reach.
  7. Teens want to be spoken to on a personal level. Find out what their interests are and encourage them to pursue those. Offer to help guide them in their passions. 
  8. Show interest in them and their biological parents, who have shaped the person they are becoming. 
  9. Make a big deal out of their strengths and talents if this is from physically active to a hobby. 
  10. Help them research possible careers for when they graduate from high school. Inform them that dropping out of high school after coming this far would cut them short of what they can achieve. 
  11. Please encourage them to express their feelings and emotions to you. They will need to learn that expressing their feelings is natural and healthy instead of keeping them inside. 
  12. Set rules and consequences for your household as soon as possible. 
  13. Assign them responsibilities in your home. As much as they hate it, this will allow them to feel part of the family and give them a sense of importance and self-worth. 

Teens in foster care need families. They need and want a place to call home, somewhere to come to for holidays and special occasions, a place they feel safe and welcome at any stage in life. 

We hope you can see the value in these amazing young adults.

Let's do this and learn more. 


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