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.

How Fun Helps Build Resilience in Your Foster Child

While we cannot spare our foster children from all of the trauma of being in foster care, one of the best things foster parents can do is cultivate a home life aimed at helping build resilience in their foster children. In this and the other two videos in this series, I am offering three things you can do every day, beginning on day one of a new placement, to do just that. (Click here for Part One: Routines and here for Part Two: Communication if you missed the first two videos in the series!)

In this latest video, I am sharing about the vital role fun can play in helping children develop a sense of stability, security, and safety as they adjust to being in a new place (your home).

Remember, there is a world of difference between “Go play!” and “Let’s play!”

Playing with an infant or toddler can be as simple as an endless game of Peek-a-boo or “This little piggy went to market…” Preschool and early elementary school-aged kids love board games like Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Connect Four, Uno, Go Fish, and Outfoxed. Likewise, they love when, rather than sitting on a park bench and watching them play, you join them on the playground. For older kids, some of our favorite board games include Monopoly Deal (which, unlike Monopoly, can be played in under fifteen minutes), Sequence, and Clue. And Hide-and-Seek never gets old, no matter your age!

One vital key to “healing play” is that your attention be undivided and entirely on your kids. No cell phones, no checking social media, no chatting with other adults in the room while “playing” with the child. Even if it’s just for fifteen minutes or so, the child must have your full attention.

Another key is to let the child take the lead in what you play. Remember, children often feel like adults are making all the decisions for them. But children have a natural desire to experience agency and to feel empowered! Letting them choose the game you play is a great way to, in the words of my parenting coach Amy McCready of Positive Parenting Solutions, “give them a hit of power.”

Believe me when I tell you: that “hit of power” goes a long way!

Again, we foster parents cannot do anything about the circumstances that have brought a child into foster care and into our home. However, there is so much we can do to help them develop resilience and begin their healing journey, and I believe it mostly boils down to maintaining routines, being intentional about communicating with them, and going out of our way to have fun with them on a daily basis.

How Communication Helps Build Resilience in Your Foster Child

While we cannot spare our foster children from all of the trauma of being in foster care, one of the best things foster parents can do is cultivate a home life aimed at helping build resilience in their foster children. In this and the other two videos in this series, I offer three things you can do every day, beginning on day one of a new placement, to do just that.

In the first video in the “Resilience Series,” I talked about how routines can help build resilience. I discussed how routines help children learn to predict what to expect each day, and how that predictability can help them feel safe and secure. I also offered examples of daily, weekly, and seasonal routines (or rituals) that kids grow to really appreciate, from the bedtime routine to the annual holiday traditions.

In this video, I am sharing about the vital role communication can play in helping children develop a sense of stability, security, and safety as they adjust to being in a new place (your home). Because of how chaotic and disruptive it is for children in foster care, they often experience a sense of insecurity associated with instability. By practicing good communication, we help our children feel seen and heard, and we help ensure they feel prepared and informed about whatever life might throw at them that day.

Good communication also provides an opportunity for validation, a vital part of helping build trust and confidence. .

Check out Part I here, and be sure to subscribe to my channel so you don’t miss Part III, which is coming out this Friday, in which I will discuss the role having fun plays in building resilience!