Facebook groups for foster & adoptive parents can often be full of drama, but I happened across a really great post recently and the mom who posted it gave me permission to share. Her name is Carmen Todd and she is a former foster youth and current foster mom who specializes in taking teens. She has been there and done that on both sides of the system and listening to her is worth your time.
Parenting teens is a challenge under the simplest of circumstances, let alone when you have a teen who has experienced trauma, abuse, neglect and then has been removed from everything they know and love. Her words give excellent advice for those first few days when a teen is in your home.
So, I want to be clear, what is written below is her wisdom not mine. However, I have added some of my thoughts & experiences in italics...
1) Do not discuss rules. Let the kid know that you care more about what they need from you as opposed to your expectations of them. Let them know that your priority is making sure that they get comfortable and that if you have any concerns with something that they do, you will talk to them about it and hopefully they will do the same if they have any concerns with something that you or anyone else in the house does.
2) Take them shopping for comfort snacks to keep in their room. If they don’t want to go, ask for a list. Don’t worry about what they eat or how much they eat... if junk food makes them happy... Let it be... you can worry about introducing healthier options later. Don’t be uptight about food in the room, if worried about bugs or mice take precautions. This can really be a huge comfort to kids.
I will add to this that we tried to let our kids keep snacks in their room and it became a problem. So we don't actually let them keep food in their rooms anymore (also remember, they have now been with us for 5 years). However, the principle here is clear. With a new placement, I totally agree with taking them shopping with you for some snacks or asking them for a list of what they like and letting them keep it in their room. We have a cupboard in the kitchen that has plenty of snacks that our kids enjoy and they can grab them whenever they like. My kids text me food requests and my promise is that I will have it for them within 48hrs. Food is a big deal. Don't worry about what they eat or how much they eat for at least the first few months. Don't put locks on your kitchen cupboards. Don't force them to eat what you enjoy. Let them settle in for a few months and then, once they trust you, start a conversation on nutrition and attempt to offer some healthier choices. But the first little bit? Let them feel comforted.
3) Find your inner empath and express how hard it must be to live with people they don’t know and how much starting a new school sucks. Don’t try to make them feel better or tell them about your experiences... let them see that you are sad, angry, and nervous with them.
4) Do NOT ask specific questions about their past. Your questions should be about what they like, what makes them feel good, what their interests are, who they want to be in the future, what are their favorite foods (and then stock up on them), do they like games, movies, music? Note this should not be like the scene from Uncle Buck...rapid fire questions. Casually get this information from them, if they show resistance give them space, but keep trying.
5) Offer to take them shopping for some new outfits for school, haircut, nails, what would make them feel better? However, you don’t want them thinking that you’re trying to “buy them” for lack of better words so... Be sure to explain first that this is because you want them to feel confident on their first day of school and SOMETIMES (not always) looking better can make you feel better.
6) Make sure the path from their room to the bathroom is lit up with nightlights. If you have a security system make sure they know what sets it off (like windows, garage door, motion) and how to disarm it.
7) Make sure that their room looks like the rest of the rooms in the house. If your bio kid has queen bed, don’t put them in a twin. If the rest of your house is decorated, theirs should be too. Let them change it if they don’t like the style. I also try to make their space/room as cozy as possible. Night light (unplugged, but out if they need it), salt lamp (turn off / remove they don’t like it), air freshener, small air purifier (tell them what it is) again remove if they don’t want it. All rooms should have a fan in case they are a fan sleeper. I also put a small one on the nightstand if they like it right in their face. Make sure they have a way to charge their electronics.
8) If they don’t come with a cell phone provide them one... immediately. They must be able to stay in contact with their friends and family. Don’t make them “prove” they can handle it and for the love of sugar don’t monitor them straight out of the gate! Get to know them before you suspect them. If there is a reason for concern later... revert to number 1. Yes, I know many of you will say “cell phones are a privilege not a right” seriously? Maybe in the 90’s but today cell phones ARE normalcy.
Before you take in a placement of a child ages 12+, research local phone plans. You will want to find a company that can offer a good deal on a month to month plan (separate from your family plan). As she said, their ability to get on a smart phone as soon as possible will not only help them connect with friends and family, but, I would add, also to see you as an ally. If it becomes a problem later, you can deal with it later. Your main objective these first few months is gaining trust and building a relationship and this topic one way you will take steps forward or backward.
9) Do not turn into tour guide and download your entire family history. On that same note it is not necessary to walk them through the house showing them every nook and cranny and where things are kept... they won’t remember anyway and it can just be really awkward... yes, they need to know where the basic things are, but don’t turn it into an event. I have decorative signs that say bathroom outside of our main bathrooms and each bedroom has some sort of identifying decoration on the door that I point out to help them remember who is where.
One idea is a simple sheet in their room that they can go over (alone) on their own time. On the sheet you can list all important details. Here are a few samples:
your names and numbers
the names and ages of any other kids in the house
names and types of pets and what they are like
any daily / weekly routines that would be helpful for them to reference later (like what times you wake up / go to work and come home / eat, what days a certain family member has a commitment that takes you away from home for awhile, etc)
where bathrooms, gaming systems and TV's are located
name of the school they will attend
location of the nearest stores they may like to walk to (7/11, McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts, for example)
10) IF POSSIBLE - Give them access to the following things (they do not have to share or ask permission to use): a bike, a TV, a gaming device (buy at least one game of choice if they are a gamer and don’t come with any). Don’t try to control how they spend their time. I absolutely took it personally when my foster parents told me that I wasn’t allowed to watch tv in “this house” all day, it just wasn’t acceptable - I had to do productive things (i.e. things they found acceptable). My mom and I used to watch TV all day together... I just really wanted to watch our shows and never could.
I would add to this, giving them access to activities outside the home. Maybe they want a library card or to be added to your gym membership. Find out if they play a sport or instrument and would like to get connected to that activity somehow. If they are artistic can they do a drop in class somewhere? Keeping them busy with activities they enjoy will help them physically and emotionally settle in. They might say no at first, and that is fine. But observe them and you will see what they like and you can offer again next week. As she said, if they are used to watching TV, then don't disrupt their life too much by forcing them to get off the couch at first. But, if they have an interest, let them know you are totally willing to help them get involved. Let them know you would love to support them!
Our kids have played football, wrestling, basketball, taken sewing classes, tumbling classes, mixed martial arts classes, voice lessons, guitar lessons, gymnastics lessons, karate lessons, swimming lessons, ballet, poms, cheer, fashion club, yoga, danced in variety shows, been on the track team for high jump, we have worked out on weights together at the gym, run 5k's together, and I have researched a ton of drills on Youtube so I can help them practice basketball at our local gym.
Let them chill, let them watch TV and play video games. Especially at first, let them escape the horror of their reality. But gently and consistently offer to be their biggest fan and help them discover their strengths.
11) Make sure they know what to expect for meals. If you do sit down at the table meals don’t make them join you. That was seriously the WORST for me! I never sat at a table with my family so I sure in the heck didn’t want to do it with someone else’s. It was uncomfortable and felt like everyone was staring at me. Not to mention it’s traumatic to a kid with anxiety or food issues. Allow them to go to their room with their food... allow them to eat when they want. Don’t get uptight about them eating according to your schedule, let them eat leftovers or make a plate for later if they want.
I know this might be tough for some of you, but I think she does a great job explaining this. We don't really do regular family meals in our house. It was a lesson I learned after forcing it for a long time and creating unnecessary conflict. Check out The Call to Love to read how I messed that up a few too many times. Family dinners are a great idea in theory and they could be a long term goal, but for foster & adoptive parents it's not always the best plan. For the first few months, just take it easy. Invite your foster teens to join you, casually let them know you enjoy their company and would love for them to sit with you, but don't make it a thing. There are lots of ways to connect with teens, other than meal times.
12) Ask about what they need in the morning. Do they want you to wake them up or do they want to wake themselves up. How much time do they need in the bathroom (if sharing)? How long do they need to get ready?
I would add to ask about what products do they need. Try to provide general toiletries, but maybe they have some specific preferences (for example a certain brand of face wash or a flat iron). Of course, you might not be able to provide everything, but picking up a few special requests will help them feel good about how they look, which then translates to how they feel about your relationship.
Also, before your foster teen arrives, check out your local hair salons. Check out a few options for different genders, hair types and overall vibes. Then, if your teen needs their hair done before school starts you will be ready. I encourage you to try to find a stylist of the same ethnicity as your foster teen, to ensure they know how to work with their hair & to provide an environment for racial mirroring if your family is transracial. (So that prep work and knowing your options is key)
13) Give them choices for school. Example: Tomorrow we enroll you and the school requires you to start on the day you enroll... are you ready for that or do you want one extra day to settle in? (My caseworkers have never had an issue with this.) In my case: I work until 5, so you’ll have about an hour after school before I get home. Are you ok with being home alone (or with the other kids) or would you rather go to the Y, park, or mall and wait for me to pick you up? Do you want hot lunch, cold, or if applicable would you rather leave campus for lunch? If they want to come home and there is no bus do they want to walk or bike? I also text them throughout the day. Especially at first. Thinking about you... How’s it going? Do you need anything? How are your teachers? How are your classes?
I would also add a lot of Number 3: Empathy here. When they respond to your questions don't try to make it better. If they respond that their teachers suck and their classes are boring, just validate it. Just sit in it with them. If the administrator is racist, don't try to argue with them and talk them out of it. Just be their ally. Especially over text and especially at the beginning. Just be in it with them. Then, if their feelings are still strong a week later, talk it out and come up with some plans to improve their situation. Remember Collaborative Problem Solving?
14) If you have other kids in the house don’t do awkward introductions, schedule family meetings or activities. Avoid all things that could draw attention to them or put them on the spot. I do remind my current kids how they felt on their first day and encourage them to be conscious of including the new kid on things (if y’all are hanging out in the living room, ask him to join) or invite them when they go somewhere, but not to take it personally if declined. This is not required of the current kids, just encouraged and they always do... again because they can relate.
15) Do not take anything they do or say personally and more importantly don’t expect gratitude or respect from them. Teens in general can be moody and mad for reasons we will never understand, however teens in care have that times 1000 for obvious reasons. Most of my teens have been kicked out of multiple homes for stupid stuff and treated like criminals for no reason whatsoever. I expect them to be mad and suspicious of me. If they are mad at you and nobody else don’t just let it go either... keep trying until you find out why and then be willing to change it.
16) Do not try to impose your sleep times on them. Let them fall asleep to music or the TV if that soothes them. Yes, sleep is important but again, that is a bridge you can start crossing once you have established some trust (only if it proves to be an issue as in they are falling asleep in school or cannot get up in the morning).
Sleep is often one of the first things disrupted by trauma. So by imposing our sleep schedules on teens we are forcing them to do something they may not be capable of! How is that going to help them relax and trust us? We all know that the blue light from our phones keeps us awake longer. But this conversation can be had a few months down the road. At the beginning, let them use the coping skills they are used to in order to regulate and settle down.
Also, there is some solid evidence that melatonin is not released in the teen brain until around 11pm (For more info read The Teenage Brain by Dr Jensen). So forcing them to fall asleep before then, is often a challenge. So, as long as our kids are getting to school on time in the morning, and they are quiet enough that they are not keeping up the rest of the house, we leave them alone at night and let them manage their own sleep schedule. By making these small choices you are demonstrating trust in them and you are choosing your battles over things that matter. This will go a long way in building a relationship with those teens.
Also, let them tell you how they best fall asleep. I like that she added falling asleep to music or earlier she said a fan. Some kids will play the music loudly as they are used to falling asleep in a loud home. Some kids will like to have the ability to lock the door as they have been abused in the night or had their stuff stolen. We have allowed them to lock their doors, but we keep a key in our room for emergencies. Some kids will like to sleep with the lights on. We have put energy efficient light bulbs in our bedrooms so they have the ability to create the amount of light they prefer in their room for sleeping. Perhaps you have a floor lamp with a dimmer switch? A closet light that can be left on? Let them be in control of these things.
17) Lastly and by far the most unpopular... please do not assume that all teens lie, steal, watch porn, sext, engage in risky internet behavior, drink, smoke, take drugs. And if they do... the answer is not black and white consequences. You cannot discipline someone into conforming. I’m not saying avoid consequences completely, I have consequences and they are specific to the kid and it is also VERY important to understand the root cause (puberty, wanting acceptance, self regulation) and then work with them and their therapist to address the root cause, while setting expectations and consequences as you go.
Many victims of trauma, of all ages, engage in behaviors such as lying or using substances or anything that helps them escape their painful reality. Don't assume your foster teen will engage in those behaviors, but don't be afraid of them either. Recognize, as she said, that there is a root cause and unless you deal with the root, you are just freaking out over the leaves. Does that make sense? These behaviors may never surface in your foster teen, but if they do, they might be coping mechanisms that are helping them fill their needs. So if you decide you are going to consequence them (and you might), make sure you are also working with them to figure out a new way to get those needs met. New coping strategies.
What if you were taken from your family and moved into a home that was against caffeine? And you kept saying, but I'm tired and I need some coffee in the morning to help me get through the day. And then they kept turning off your phone for a week each time they found out you were sneaking coffee behind their back?
I'm not saying it's easy, and I'm not saying I have always dealt with it well. But, if I were to give you some advice on parenting foster teens I would say try to see the story behind the behaviour and patiently help them heal.
As always, if you want to talk through these issues further, please feel to reach out. We can chat briefly by email, or schedule a parent coaching session at firstname.lastname@example.org