You’ll often find that when people first enquire to foster, they think younger children will be easier to manage, and that teenagers will be difficult. But all children in care come with their issues, and often teenagers become the preferred option for many of our foster parents. When fostering teenagers, it’s important to take the time to get to know the real them when they first arrive, to listen to and respect them, and to ensure that boundaries and rules are put in place. We asked our foster parents for their tips on caring for teenagers.
It’s important to teach teenagers in care how to be independent, and how to survive in life after care. Our foster parents told us how they teach them to cook, clean, and keep good hygiene whilst they are living with them. It’s also necessary to encourage teenagers to stay in education and gain qualifications. Often described as ‘difficult’ by their teachers, they can often feel that school is not important and that there is no reason to attend. By encouraging attendance, and supporting their education in the home, you can ensure that children in your care are able to gain the qualifications they need for later in life.
It’s not just the children that need educating. It’s important that you’re willing to learn and develop as a parent as well. Often the teenagers in your care have been through abuse, trauma, and neglect, and have experienced more than you can imagine. Some have often had to be the parent to younger siblings and so it’s important to ensure that you are respecting their pre-care experiences, and in some cases helping them to be a child again and have fun. Our foster parents also told us how important it is to attend training with Fostering Solutions to develop your skills and knowledge. By learning about psychology, the behaviours shown by teenagers, and the trauma behind these behaviours you will be better able to understand the young adults in your care.
Teenagers and young people are often thought of as having no respect for their elders, but in order for them to respect you, you also have to respect them. When they first arrive with you they may want more privacy to settle in and spend a lot of time in their room. Although you should try to engage them in family life, it’s important that they have some independent time and their privacy is respected within this. It’s important to treat them like the young adults they are, and respect that they need their own space and time.
You should also respect their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. If you listen to the teenager in your care they are more likely to trust you and open up to you. By listening and being patient, you are letting them know you respect their thoughts and opinions. We asked our carers what strategies they used with the teenagers in their care. “Don’t immediately dismiss their opinions on something just because you disagree. By asking questions and listening to their thought processes behind the statements they are coming out with, you will open up conversation. Respect them and listen to them.”
Another of our carers told us “don’t tease them. There’s a difference between teasing them and having shared banter. Especially to start with, you don’t always know what might trigger a memory from the past.” As you develop a relationship with the teenager in your care, you can start to develop a shared sense of humour with them. However to start with, until the young person is comfortable in your care, it is best to refrain from teasing as much as possible.
All teenagers want to spend time as they wish, and they all feel they are already an adult, however they still need structure and routines in place to be able to function. By leaving the house for school at the same time, ensuring that homework is always done before they have screen time, and setting a curfew for them to be home by, we can keep them safe.
Setting a curfew is especially important with foster children. Many of our young people are vulnerable to being exploited by individuals older than themselves. If you have a set curfew, your young person will know what time they need to be in and cannot claim they “forgot” as it changes every time they go out with their friends.
Screen time is important for children and young people in the modern world but it is important to monitor this and schedule in time after they have done chores and homework. One of our carers told us “we allow the boys to be responsible for their own screen time. They are very good at it as they know that chores or homework come first. They will often ask if they can watch TV, and we ask if they’ve done everything they need too. We have very few issues with homework or chores, so we must be doing something right.”
It’s important to spend time with them as a family. They may want to spend all their time in their rooms or with friends, but it’s important to engage them in family life.
Many of our children are able to go away on holiday with their foster carers. One of our carers told us “We have a caravan on the coast. We go at least once a month from March through to October and the children love it. For some of the children we’ve had placed it is the first time they’ve ever been to the beach, and enjoy spending time making sandcastles, and catching crabs. They were 13 and 16 when we first went away, and it was so rewarding to see the smiles on their faces as they were able to act like children again away from the pressures they had at home.”
Another of our carers told me how “we go to the gym with our two boys on a regular basis. They love spending time with us, and they’re getting exercise at the same time. They’d rather spend time with us going out on a bike ride or for a walk in the countryside than sitting at home watching TV. They are very independent as teenagers, but they love it when we spend time together as a family.” For some of our children, they did not get family time at home, and so they often enjoy being able to spend time with their carers and any other children or young people in the house.
Teenagers can and do come with issues. They may go missing from care, have issues with aggression, and are more vulnerable to being exploited by others. However, with all of these behaviours, you have to remember what circumstances the children has come from. It’s important not to take anything personally. Even if they are shouting abuse at you, it may be there has been a trigger from past memories and experience.
For example, you may be having a disagreement with your partner over something. The teenager you care for has come from a house in which there was domestic violence, and this abuse often started with heated conversations like you are now having with your partner. Rather than have to witness the abuse, the young person you are caring for used to run away from home. This may trigger a similar emotion, and cause them to go missing from care. It’s important to reassure the teenager on their return that this is normal behaviour in a family and it doesn’t always end in violence and abuse.
Another scenario may be that the young person in your care has issues with anger management. They were told they couldn’t go out with their friends until they had done their homework which has frustrated them and they have trashed their bedroom. This child may have seen similar in their past, with a parent trashing parts of the house when they got angry and therefore this is a learned behaviour. Use strategies from training and work with your supervising social worker to identify ways to support the child to manage these feelings. Maybe getting them involved in exercise where they can have a release of this energy, or even encouraging them to talk through their feelings with you so that you know how they feel. This communication will also help in other areas such as them trusting you.
Many children and young people, when they first arrive in care, may have what you would consider strange food habits. To them this may be the norm, with some children having lived solely on fast food prior to their time in care. One of our carers told us “when the girl I was looking after first arrived, she told me she liked spicy food and lamb. I decided I’d make a lamb curry thinking this would be fine, however she refused to eat it. Turned out she had been eating chip shop curry and lamb grills. It’s taken time, but we’ve helped to broaden her palate by involving her in the kitchen.”
By working alongside the teenager in your care, you can start to expand their eating habits and guide them in the direction of healthy and nutritious food. This may take time but there are plenty of ways to start adapting their likes and dislikes. For example, if they love KFC, why not look up a recipe to make KFC at home in a healthy way. Get them to help make the food in the kitchen with you and not only are you expanding their palate, but also teaching them life skills in the kitchen. Once they have tried ‘fake-aways’ they have helped to cook, they may then be more open to trying new foods that you’d typically eat on a regular basis.
Fostering a teenager can be a very rewarding experience. The young person may have come to you with a whole host of issues, but this means there is more opportunity to see change in them. For example, you may have a teenager who comes to you out of education. By working alongside other professionals, this young person may start to access some form of education which is a huge achievement both for them and yourself. By always continuing to support these young people, we can help them to achieve excellent outcomes.
National Fostering Group work with different local authorities, offering different types of fostering to suit the needs of you and your family. If you think you could foster a teenager, find out more about the fostering process and what you need to do to become a foster carer.