Social connections help youth in foster care thrive

Young people in foster care struggle with trauma and other challenges. For many, a bright and happy future is not guaranteed. One way to protect these young people from the risks they face and put them on the path to success is to help them build and maintain social connections.

Social connections has two parts: (1) healthy, supportive, caring relationships with family, peers, and other adults, and (2) constructive engagement with safe, stable, equitable organizations and institutions (e.g., schools, churches). To thrive, young people need good connections to both people and institutions.

Connections to People
In their search for identity, purpose, and direction, young people need to feel connected to others, especially to people who:

  • Care about them
  • Listen non-judgmentally and keep communication open
  • Give well-informed advice
  • Help solve problems
  • Set limits that are
  • Offer opportunities for new experiences, and
  • Encourage them, set high expectations, and celebrate their successes.

Resource parents and other caring adults help meet this need, of course. Research finds youth who feel close and attached to at least one caring adult are psychologically healthier than peers who feel detached. Being connected to a trusted adult is a buffer against many types of risks including depression, early sexual activity, violence, and alcohol and marijuana use.

NC policy recognizes how important it is for youth to have meaningful relationships with adults. For example, since 2001, our state has sought to ensure that, in addition to professional relationships, all teens in foster care have a personal support system of at least five caring adults.

Peers count, too. Close peer relationships and friendships are especially important during adolescence. Peer groups provide a context for youth to develop and express independence and develop their own identity. Identity includes a youth’s self-concept (i.e., beliefs about oneself), self-esteem (i.e., positive or negative feelings about oneself) and a sense of who one is (including gender identity, sexual orientation, race, culture, and socioeconomic status). Conversely, research shows a lack of close peer relationships is associated with a range of poor outcomes in adolescence and adulthood such as delinquency, poor academic performance, poor social skills, and mental health problems.

Connections to Institutions
Youth also need to be constructively engaged in organizations such as schools, religious communities, and recreational facilities. Social institutions support young people’s intellectual, social, emotional, moral, and physical development.

To feel connected to a social institution, youth must see it as safe and believe that at least one adult associated with the institution is fair, cares about them both as a member of a group (e.g., student/team player/band member/congregant) and as an individual, and wants them to succeed.

Connection to a social institution helps buffer young people. For example, participation in an active, school-based support group correlates with lower rates of depression and suicide attempts in LGBT youth. Conversely, when young people feel isolated, excluded, or disconnected from social institutions, they may experience a range of negative reactions, such as lack of self-confidence or increased likelihood of suicidal thoughts.

Quality, Not Quantity
The quality of social connections is what matters. Youth can feel lonely and isolated even when surrounded by others if relationships lack emotional depth and genuine acceptance. Group activities must support a sense of connectedness between the youth and at least one other person. New relationships should engender meaningful support so honest conversations and healthy development can occur in a context of mutual trust and respect.

Take-Aways for Parents
What does all this mean for you as a resource parent? Since social connection reduces risk for kids and increases their resilience and well-being, foster and adoptive parents and kin caregivers should deliberately cultivate children’s relationships with people and institutions.

This starts with you, of course. Your reassurance, understanding, and consistency can make a big difference in their lives.

You should also encourage their involvement in social activities that build on their interests. For example, encourage them to join a sports team, a club (drama, chess, poetry), a music group or choir, a scout troop, or faith-based youth group. North Carolina’s new policy related to normalcy for kids in care is designed to encourage this kind of thing. (Click here for more on this policy.) Activities requiring synchronous movement with others (like dancing or singing) are especially helpful in increasing positivity.

Volunteer activities that help others have been shown to increase children’s feelings of worth, value, and meaning—all of which are protective. Find ways for them to do things for someone else: make a meal and take it to a sick neighbor, help out at the animal shelter, serve lunch at the soup kitchen, work on a Habitat for Humanity house, write a letter telling someone why you are grateful to have them in your life. These skills will protect children for a lifetime.

It’s important to remember that the impact of trauma does not have to be permanent. Brain cells and connections can be “rewired” within the context of positive environmental stimulation. When young people have positive, nurturing, kind, permanent relationships and experiences, their brains build new pathways that help them reach a calm and connected state. With the right relationships, education, and supports children and youth can learn to THRIVE.

Special thanks to the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s Francie Zimmerman for her contributions to this article.


Ways You Can Promote Social Connections for Youth in Foster Care

  • Model strong, supportive, and loving relationship skills. Be the kind of positive, caring adult who makes a difference in the lives children and youth.
  • Help youth stay connected to siblings, extended birth family members, past foster parents, and other important adults whenever possible.
  • Provide a predictable, fair, and stable home and avoid any additional moves or disrupted connections.
    Take time to reflect on your own experiences and history and know who and how you relate best to other people.
  • Connect youth to other caring adults (coaches, teachers, neighbors, clergy) and other young people with similar interests, circumstances, or backgrounds and to activities that celebrate their race, culture, and ethnicity.
  • Encourage youth to get help to address any issues that make it hard to develop healthy connections (e.g., anxiety, depression); this could be through counseling, support groups, or other wellness activities such as yoga, relaxation techniques, or exercise.
  • Make sure youth are able to attend and participate in child and family team meetings (CFTs) and other case planning meetings.
    Ensure youth can participate in the full range of “normal” adolescent activities such as sleepovers, class trips, and prom.
  • Celebrate successes and events that are significant to the young person.
  • Be patient and don’t give up. Healing takes time, as does building positive connections.