Vol. 12, No. 1• November 2007

What do teens want from foster parents?

by Joan McAllister and Nancy Carter

Many North Carolina teens in foster care are placed out-of-county in group homes and child care institutions. This isn’t surprising, if you consider that most of the families we recruit to foster or adopt are not interested in teens.

But it would be wrong to assume that, based on this, there are no families interested in caring for teens, or that teens themselves don’t want to live with families.

True, being a foster parent for a teenager or a young adult is very different from being a foster parent for a younger child. But for the most part the difference lies in the normal challenges of adolescent development, not in the young person’s foster care status.

Teens and young adults are literally adults-in-training. They need—and want—life models, life coaches, and opportunities to develop into the people they can be.

Perhaps the real problem is that we haven’t made a strong enough effort to recruit foster families specifically for teens and young adults. Who knows? Perhaps we should even ask teens to help us.

As a first step in that direction, we’d like to share with you the things some teens we know say they need in a foster parent.

Someone who will make you a part of their family.
Teens don’t like to be singled out as “different.” This is especially true in the foster family, where fairness is key: if a foster youth is the same age as another child in your home, she wants to be treated as the other child would be treated. If rules are different for them, the reasons should be fair. Opportunities must exist for the foster youth to earn the same privileges as other youth.

Someone who has a good attitude about being a foster parent.
While every parent has frustrating days, a successful foster parent enjoys his or her role most of the time.

Fostering teens is an opportunity to provide youths with a “toolkit” of skills that will help them survive in the real world. Having a “good attitude” means allowing youths to practice those skills—even if it means the kitchen is a mess. In fact, a messy kitchen is really an opportunity to teach cleaning and organization while reinforcing the teen’s desire to make his afterschool snack. Coming home and saying “Wow, you must have enjoyed their afternoon snack. Looks like it’s time to get moving on a cleanup,” can go a lot further than, “What happened to MY kitchen? You are never to use it again! Do you understand me?”

Someone who isn’t “in it for the money.”
It’s hard to believe, but some teens think some people provide foster care for the money. Part of the problem may be that teens don’t understand what things cost. While we don’t recommend that foster parents constantly emphasize how much they pay out of pocket to care for the teens in their homes, taking the teen shopping for groceries, having discussions of household bills and budgets, giving the teen responsibility for purchasing some of his own necessities, etc., can help him or her get a better sense of the cost of living. This is, of course, an important life skill in itself.

Someone who shows they care about your feelings; someone who is nice, respectful, and loving.
Many teens in foster care come from backgrounds in which both positive and negative emotions were often expressed in extreme, inaccurate, or inappropriate ways. Youth need to know how to express emotions appropriately. They need to feel the joy of knowing that a respected adult cares about them and how they feel. Developmentally, teens are often on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Having someone who can model a caring, calm, and respectful response enhances teens’ positive development.

Someone who sets rules but isn’t obsessive about them.
Be fair about rules and guidelines. Make sure you understand why they exist and communicate those reasons clearly to teens. Developmentally, teens are trying to discern moral reasoning, so it is realistic to expect teens to ask “why?” Indeed, you should encourage them to do so. It is equally realistic to expect adults to respond appropriately, calmly, and with respect. Being overly dramatic about rules will only reinforce inappropriate ways of expression.

Someone who is a good listener.
Everyone likes to be heard. Yet teens are not known for being the “let’s sit and talk” population. In fact, they have a reputation for limiting their communication with adults.

The best way to get teens to talk to you is to involve them in something or, better yet, get involved in something they are doing. For instance, get them involved in helping with dinner. While you both have your hands busy, ask about their day. Mention a show you saw and why you think they may like it. Ask if there’s something they’ve heard about that you might find interesting. Inquire whether they‘ve ever considered working in the food industry. You might even try asking them if they could teach you some easy ways to navigate a website, do searches, format a document, create a power point presentation, etc.

Once you get involved with teens the communication becomes much easier, AND you learn a thing or two about their strengths and interests.

Someone who believes “real love” can overcome many struggles.
Does anyone really know what “real love” is? Maybe this is a starting point for a dinner conversation. There’s no right or wrong answer, so the person asking for “real love” is the only one who can define it. Typical responses may include “loving me even when I do the wrong thing,” “will never leave me,” “someone I can’t wait to see each day,” etc.

The real message in this statement is, “I need hope that things will be better.” Young people in foster care continue to seek hope in a better day, a better time, a better age—something better than what is available to them right now.

Real love offers real hope. And with real hope a young person can get through today and reach for tomorrow. Foster parents can offer that hope and give young people a reason to reach for tomorrow.

Joan McAllister coordinates the NC LINKS program for the NC Division of Social Services. Nancy Carter is the Executive Director of ILR, Inc.

North Carolina Foster Care Facts


In state fiscal year (SFY) 2005-06:

  • There were 1,330 children age 13-17 in care
  • Half (50%) of these teens were placed in non-family settings (i.e., group or institutional care)

In contrast, during this same time only 2% of foster children age 0 to 5 and 18% of foster children age 6 to 12 were placed in non-family settings.

(Source: Duncan, et al., 2007)

 

Copyright 2007 Jordan Institute for Families