Parenting Teens in Foster Care: Power and Protection

Up until this year, it was a dreaded word for me. As a social worker, at my last job teenagers were avoided.

They have baggage, they run away, they will stay loyal to their birth parents(How is that actually a bad thing? It’s complicated..), they do the opposite of everything you tell them, they make their own rules.

It makes sense that as a welfare worker, teenagers are generally the most time consuming humans on a worker’s case load. But why? I think it is the same reason it is more challenging to find foster homes that are willing to accept a teenager.

Teens are more complex than elementary and infant children due to their stage of development. For teens, power can be a substantial trigger for that feeling of being “out of control”. The child welfare system operates with huge amounts of power. A teenager who probably experienced low or inconsistent levels of parental authority in their home growing up, is not accustomed to a parent(s) consistently exerting power over them. What makes foster care for teens even more challenging is that the legal system, usually coined “court” has absolute decision making power, and those decisions are carried out by the case worker.

So now, instead of having power, teens are found they have less power in an environment that they are more isolated from friends and family. Yes, teens are placed in foster care to be kept safe from harmful situations and people, but in my professional experience, teens tend to disagree that they are unsafe. Teens that are placed in families of a race or ethnicity that differs from their own also exposes them to different power dynamics. A majority culture teen placed with a minority foster family will have a different experience than a minority culture teen being placed with a majority culture foster family.

Here are a few tips that I have generated from working with a few kick a$$ foster parents who have teen placements.

First things first, work on the relationship, not the rules.

Newsflash, your teen is going to break the rules. You are going to recognize it, and feel the need to address it. The better your working relationship is with your teen, the more prepared you will be to talk about and reprimand in a way that is (partially) accepted by the teen. I’m not saying have no rules, and don’t share the rules with them. I’m saying lay out the rules, talk about each one and explain the reasoning for them.

When a human is moved from a place of comfort and normalcy, even if dysfunctional, to an unfamiliar place with different expectations, survival mode kicks in and that human does what it knows to stay alive.

Don’t expect the teen to be perfect. Don’t accuse the teen of being disrespectful. Don’t compare the teen with other kids in the home. Don’t try to draw out guilt.

Do listen to the teen and repeat back any complaint they have. Do maintain rules related to safety, and communicate that to the teen. Do communicate clearly events or routines that are happening in the near future. Do try to facilitate laughter, humor, jokes, and any interaction that will tell the teen you are a safe person. (Don’t expect them to be grateful for any of these things.)

Pro tip/fact: Teens who trust and feel like they can go to their caregiver when life gets hard are less likely to experience feelings of self-harm and suicidal thoughts and actions because they know there is a safe outlet.

Develop House rules that make sense and are simple.

Develop rules that are simple, to the point, and easily understood. Keep house rules limited, and focus on safety and communication. Rules can align with certain values like respect, kindness, and nonviolence. Keep in mind that the more rules you have, the more overwhelmed your teen will feel and the less likely they will feel able or a desire to follow the rules.

If age and development are appropriate, include the teen in making their own house rules with your guidance. This gives power to the teen, but also holds them more accountable.

Keep your teen updated on the happenings of their case, even if it is full of “yuck”.

This one is hard for me. I actually was turned off by some foster parents who shared everything with their teen. I think I felt this way because younger foster children don’t have the capacity or understanding to cope with some of the realities of foster care. The fact is, teens have probably heard worse, experienced worse, and felt worse in the past than anything you can tell them. When you take time to share with them decisions that the court or case worker have made, or anything that has happened to their family, you are telling the youth that they matter enough to know.

I realized towards the end of my time as a child welfare worker that this characteristic was usually the difference between an open and trusting relationship and a relationship filled with tension and fear.

Welcome conversations that are uneasy. Talk about questions that don’t have answers. If you can’t manage those discussions in protected spaces, your teen probably won’t learn to manage those feelings at all.

Never, ever, try to alienate your teen from their birth parent.

It’s not cool. Developmentally speaking, it’s not helpful. Teens parents or past caregivers have developed an attachment with their teen. Positive, negative, weak, strong, loving, overbearing, distant. Every attachment is different, but stripping that attachment away, or trying to, is harmful because you are prompting the teen to live with no attachment at all.

Also, the best advice I have gotten about working with young people is that they can smell in-authenticity a mile away. If you use micro-comments and actions to alienate them from their parents, they will know, and they will distrust you for it.

On the other hand, teens may decided to push away their parent on their own accord. Accepting their choice vs. alienating are two very separate actions.

Disclaimer — The following information has been gathered by myself, as a professional agent holding massive power and authority while working with teenagers and their families. I am not intending to define the experience of all teenagers in foster care, nor how they think or feel.

Again, every family and situation varies based on culture, geographic area, race, and circumstance. This narrative is based off of my experiences. What’s your experience?

Foodie, Traveler, Social Worker, Child and Family Therapist, Future LICSW

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