One of the most difficult aspects of foster parenting is caring for teenagers who have come from difficult places. The many issues that come with this territory can be too much to handle at times. But, there are a few key ways to parent with success.
I could feel hear heartache through the words in her email. With each line I read, my heart sank a little deeper for her. A single mother in her 60s. Forty years deep into the journey of foster care. More than 200 children through her home in that time. If anything I should have been learning a thing or two from her. Mostly about perseverance, determination, and compassion. But she was reaching out to ask my advice.
It had been a year since her 15-year old daughter had come to live with her. In that time, she had lost count of the times the police showed up at her door. The price tag for destroyed items in her home had already passed one thousand dollars. She was fading fast. Out of all the children she fostered in her time, this girl was by far the most difficult. Her question for me dripped with desperation: “Please tell me how to handle this kid?”
I could certainly identify. In our 15 year parenting career, we’ve parented several teenagers. During our 9 year run as foster parents, we cared for a few teenagers who came from difficult places. It caused them to turn on us more than once. But we also learned some valuable lessons along the way. Mostly, how to navigate the tricky waters of fostering teenagers when you’re in a constant battle with them.
Here are 4 keys…
- Remember. Before you react, before you punish, before you say anything in response to the bad behavior or poor choices, take a moment to remember where they’ve come from. A place of trauma. A place of uncertainty. A place of survival. A constant fight to stay alive, even if they have everything they need. Even if you’ve loved them unconditionally. Remember, there is a voice whispering to them constantly, saying things like, “They don’t really love you. They say they do but so did the last family. So did your birth family. You need more. You’ve gotta fight. You can’t ever let your guard down.”
- Calm and firm. I know how hard it is to keep your cool when the girl or boy you’ve taken into your home is pushing every button, calling you names, saying things that are untrue, or destroying your belongings. I know this because Kristin and I have walked through this. But we’ve discovered something powerful: When we remain calm, and calmly explain the expectation (or consequence), and then back it up by remaining firm on our expectations, the game changes. We defuse a bomb. Maybe not always, but most of the time. In the heat of the battle remember: remain calm, remain firm. Give it a lot of time and a lot of space.
- Reinforcement. This goes two ways–reinforcing consequences for crossed boundaries, but also reinforcing the good moments with positive praise. When you care for children, particularly teenagers, from vulnerable places, they are looking for you to lose your cool. They are waiting for the moment you give up on them because, often times, it’s what they’re used to. When you intentionally reinforce them with positive praise, unconditional love, and unending care, it changes them. Maybe not overnight, but in time, it certainly does.
- Consistent. Be consistent, no matter what. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Keep lavishing love, even when they are unlovable. Keep responding to their terrible attitude with a spirit of calmness. Be firm with expectations, but wrap them up in insane compassion for this precious child. I can’t say enough about consistency. Consistency is an agent for change. Committing to consistency, over a long period of time, equals massive change in the future.
Be firm with expectations, but wrap them up in insane compassion for this precious child.
Rose is a a story of change. Rose came to live with us in the winter of 2009 when she was 17 years old. She had been through a few failed placements prior to coming to our house. Because of that, she pushed us. Boy oh boy did she push just about every boundary or expectation we set up for her. Scratch that–she flat out defied them. When she turned 18 years old, she disappeared. She had aged out of the foster care system and she was now on her own. If you would have asked me back then where she was or what she was doing, I probably would have responded with, “Dead, in jail, or homeless.” When she left the way she did, I honestly thought that would be her destiny.
But that’s where I underestimate the power of the 4 keys I just shared above. Especially #4, Consistent. When you least expect it, or even know it, your actions, your intentionality, is speaking volumes into the deepest parts of your teenager’s soul. It’s changing them from the inside out. Just a few months ago Kristin received a Facebook Message from Rose, 7 years after she abruptly left our home. It said this….
I’m thankful for your kindness, love, and patience during my time of need while in foster care. I am very fortunate to have had so many beautiful and amazing people like you in my life.
Her words stopped us dead in our tracks. More than that, they brought about a strong realization in us. That realization? Our loving actions, our calm words, our commitment to walking through hell or high water with the children we’ve been called to care for, is telling the world a much bigger story than we realize.
Mike and Kristin Berry are the authors of the Confessions of an Adoptive Parent blog and the book The Adoptive Parent Toolbox. They are the parents of 8 children, all of whom are adopted. Mike and Kristin’s passion is to reach overwhelmed, weary, and stressed out parents, all over the globe, with this message: “There is hope…..you’re not alone on this journey!”