Belonging, Identity, Purpose, and Teens in Foster Care

When I woke up on February 4, 2019, I had no idea that, by the end of the day, I would be the parent of a teenager. I was not feeling well that Monday morning, so I had asked my husband to take our three kids to school. As he was pulling his truck out of the driveway, I got a text from our former foster son’s case manager. “I know you’re taking a break from foster parenting, but I have this amazing teen who needs to move out of her current foster home through no fault of her own. I need time to find her a good long-term home. Could she stay with you for a week?”

Well, the rest, as they say, is history. The teen arrived five hours later and never left, and on April 30, 2020, we finalized her adoption.

We were not licensed for teens. We had never had a teen. I was completely intimidated by teens. Our oldest would be turning eleven a few months later. But I shouted out to my husband to roll down his window. “Jennifer just texted us about a teen. She just needs a place for a week or so. What do you think?”

To say I was unprepared to be the caregiver of a teenager is an understatement. I had no idea what I was doing. I feel like I spent those first few days walking around my house asking myself the question, “What have we done?” But I have come to believe that is how most parents feel, whether the kids came from their bodies or not. We are, all of us, flying blind—especially with the first______ (baby, elementary schooler, middle schooler, high schooler). So I did what I have done since I was a brand new parent: I ordered some books.

Years ago, I worked as a contractor for Fuller Seminary, and in my role there, I met a woman named Kara Powell and learned about her work with the Fuller Youth Institute. (At the time, I was a newlywed, and parenting a teenager was absolutely the last thing on my mind. Isn’t it funny how all things work together for good?) Naturally, when I found myself abruptly in the role of caregiver to a teenaged girl, I remembered Ms. Powell and the FYI. I ordered her book, Growing With and then, more recently, heard her on a podcast discussing her latest book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager. I found both books to be a lifeline, but 3 Big Questions has proven to be particularly helpful. There, Powell and her co-author, Brad Griffin, identify and flesh out three questions that are at the core of every teen’s heart:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I fit?
  • What difference can I make?

If these questions are at the core of every teen’s heart in general, they are really at the core of every foster teen’s heart. If a young person who is raised in the same home, by the same parents, for her whole childhood and adolescence struggles to answer the questions, “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit?” how much more does a teen in foster care struggle?

If you are considering being a foster parent to teens, my best advice is to sit with these questions and keep them front and center when it comes to all of your interactions on a day-to-day basis. Remember that your foster teen is struggling to find answers to these questions, and she is probably accustomed to having to find those answers on her own. While I am reticent to promote stereotypes, it just makes sense that someone who has had to leave her family of origin and start again in an entirely different household (or two, or three, or five, or…) would struggle. She may be more comfortable going it alone, if that is all she has known.

But it simply doesn’t work that way. As Josh Shipp put it, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.” Young people need caring adults who are willing to show up day after day, be a faithful presence in their lives, listen well, and point them in the direction of better answers. They may not be ready to accept you as “Mom” or “Dad,” but, they may come to accept you as “Advocate” as they wrestle with their sense of belonging, identity, and purpose. (And, if your experience is anything like ours, they may eventually, indeed, accept you as Mom and Dad, too.)

When she moved in with us, our daughter had a teacher who was a caring adult. He was intentional about investing in her and checking in with her, and did a great job of engaging with her and pointing her in good directions. But he could not be her permanent, full-time, 24/7 “caring adult.” That is the role of a mom, dad, grandparent, or some other permanent guardian. And while it took time for her to trust us, we did get there—one bowl of popcorn at at time.

I totally get why people are reticent to foster teens. It’s daunting, for sure. We have invested a lot of hours in therapy and relationship building, and it has not always been smooth waters; we have had our share of tears and fears.

But if not you, who? In 2019, nearly 160,000 youth ages 11-20 were in foster care, yet most foster parents prefer children ages five and under. That was certainly us as new foster parents; we were originally licensed for children ages 0-5. We had all sorts of reasons for only taking little ones. But when it came time for us to open our hearts and home to a nearly-sixteen-year-old, we began the process of growing with her. As Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson point out in their wonderful book The Power of Showing Up, “One of the very best scientific predictors for how any child turns out—in terms of happiness, academic success, leadership skills, and meaningful relationships—is whether at least one adult in their life has consistently shown up for them.”

We can’t go back in time and change all of the times adults in their lives failed to show up for them in a meaningful way. We don’t need to have all the answers. We don’t need to know “teens.” We just need to be willing to show up from now on.

Show up at the breakfast table with her favorite cereal. Show up for a walk with the dog. Show up for Family Movie Night. Show up with a trip to the thrift store. Show up with her favorite soap or shampoo. Show up with a ride to a concert she wants to go to. Show up with tickets to see her favorite band. Show up to chaperone her class trip. Show up to listen to her talk about her latest crush (or cry about her latest breakup). Show up to court when she has to testify. Show up to Parent-Teacher conferences. Show up when it’s scary and confusing. Show up with it’s fun and feels, for a moment, like a totally normal parent/child situation.

Show up with an apology. Show up with a chore list. Show up with good questions about school. Show up with an openness to hear her story—and a peace to never know the whole thing.

If you’ve met one teen in foster care, you’ve met one teen in foster care. No two young people are exactly alike. Their stories are unique, not interchangeable. But every teen in foster care shares one thing in common: they need someone to show up for them. To be their “person” and help them navigate the big questions that consume their hearts:

Who am I?

Where do I fit?

What difference can I make?

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Photo by Jesús Rodríguez on Unsplash

Book links are Amazon Affiliate links.

When Your Teen Runs Away (Webinar for Foster Parents)

LIVE PANEL DISCUSSION VIA GOOGLE MEET

Saturday, August 1, 2020 | 9:00 AM (PST) / 12:00 PM (EST)

It’s every foster parent of a teenager’s biggest nightmare: what do you do if your foster teen runs away?

Listen in on a panel discussion featuring three women—including a trauma therapist and foster parent trainer—who are all experienced foster parents of teens. Host Christy Tennant Krispin will ask practical questions like, “What do you do in the first 24 hours?” as well as probe the harder aspects of this experience, like “Why do teens run? How do we repair the relationship? How do I manage my own emotions and reactions?”

The cost for this webinar is $5 for non-members of The Flourishing Foster Parent (FFP members automatically get access). Live access will be via Google Meet, and the cost includes access to the recording of the call after the fact.

To join, click here to be redirected to Paypal. Include your email address where it says “add a note.” If you have questions, or prefer to register by mail, please contact me.

Photo by Jesús Rodríguez on Unsplash

Give Teens a Chance

In December, our foster son, who had been with us for over eight months, reunified with his birth family and moved across the country. After he left, we declared our family on a “break from foster care,” anticipating at least a few months off while we regrouped and reestablished ourselves as a family of five.

Six weeks later, I got a Monday morning text from his case manager that went something like this: “I know you’re on a break from foster parenting, but I have this really wonderful teenage girl I need a home for. She’s had to move a lot while we look for a placement for her, and I wondered if she could stay with you for a week or so while we find her a long-term home.”

A very brief conversation and a few hours later, she showed up in our driveway. (One of those conversations was with our licensor, who had to get permission from her supervisor to give us a temporary amendment to our license, as we were only licensed for children ages birth-twelve.) We were dressed alike (camouflage cargo pants and black hoodies) and she was holding a guitar, which I play as well. A few days later, she moved the rest of her stuff in and we all told the case worker to stop looking—she found the family for this girl.

No one is more surprised than I am that we have a teenager living in our house. I have been terrified of the prospect of having a teenager. I have dreaded our own kids’ teen years, which are still a long ways off, let alone bringing an unknown adolescent into the mix. I’ve heard the horror stories. I feared the worst.

I could not have been more wrong. When we opened our home to a teenager—this teenager—we didn’t just give her the gift of family and home; she gave us the gift of herself. She is respectful, funny, and wise beyond her years. She loves the music I listened to in high school, plays guitar and writes songs, and is wonderful with our kids, who adore her. We talk easily, laugh together and when things are hard (we do have to “parent” her sometimes, we do have to say “no” sometimes, and we do have to find the delicate balance between “giving her space” and “making sure she doesn’t throw her life away by not getting her schoolwork done”), we discuss it and work through it, usually over mugs at a local coffee shop or bowls of popcorn after the little ones have gone to bed or riding in the car.

I don’t know what the future holds for our teenager and our family. It’s still early, of course, and I’m aware that she might decide our family is not where she wants to plant herself forever. We are open to all sorts of possibilities, including permanency (adoption) if that’s what she wants if/when the time comes, but only time will tell.

But I do know this: she has redefined my expectations. Our license is amended—we can now care for children from birth to eighteen. While I know that not all teens are like her, I’m not afraid of them anymore. I realize now that welcoming a teenager into your home can add tremendous blessing and value.

To riff off John Lennon, all I am saying is, give teens a chance.

I’m sure glad we did.