Help! I’m Fostering A Teenager Who Pushes Me To The Edge.

4 Keys To Building Successful Connections

One of the most difficult aspects of foster parenting is caring for teenagers who have come from difficult places. The many issues that come with this territory can be too much to handle at times. But, there are a few key ways to parent with success.

teenager girl posing cool showing attitude wearing hood on

I could feel hear heartache through the words in her email. With each line I read, my heart sank a little deeper for her. A single mother in her 60s. Forty years deep into the journey of foster care. More than 200 children through her home in that time. If anything I should have been learning a thing or two from her. Mostly about perseverance, determination, and compassion. But she was reaching out to ask my advice.

It had been a year since her 15-year old daughter had come to live with her. In that time, she had lost count of the times the police showed up at her door. The price tag for destroyed items in her home had already passed one thousand dollars. She was fading fast. Out of all the children she fostered in her time, this girl was by far the most difficult. Her question for me dripped with desperation: “Please tell me how to handle this kid?”

I could certainly identify. In our 15 year parenting career, we’ve parented several teenagers. During our 9 year run as foster parents, we cared for a few teenagers who came from difficult places. It caused them to turn on us more than once. But we also learned some valuable lessons along the way. Mostly, how to navigate the tricky waters of fostering teenagers when you’re in a constant battle with them.

Here are 4 keys…

  1. Remember. Before you react, before you punish, before you say anything in response to the bad behavior or poor choices, take a moment to remember where they’ve come from. A place of trauma. A place of uncertainty. A place of survival. A constant fight to stay alive, even if they have everything they need. Even if you’ve loved them unconditionally. Remember, there is a voice whispering to them constantly, saying things like, “They don’t really love you. They say they do but so did the last family. So did your birth family. You need more. You’ve gotta fight. You can’t ever let your guard down.”
  2. Calm and firm. I know how hard it is to keep your cool when the girl or boy you’ve taken into your home is pushing every button, calling you names, saying things that are untrue, or destroying your belongings. I know this because Kristin and I have walked through this. But we’ve discovered something powerful- When we remain calm, and calmly explain the expectation (or consequence), and then back it up by remaining firm on our expectations, the game changes. We defuse a bomb. Maybe not always, but most of the time. In the heat of the battle remember- remain calm, remain firm. Give it a lot of time and a lot of space.
  3. Reinforcement. This goes two ways- reinforcing consequences for crossed boundaries, but also reinforcing the good moments with positive praise. When you care for children, particularly teenagers, from vulnerable places, they are looking for you to lose your cool. They are waiting for the moment you give up on them because, often times, it’s what they’re used to. When you intentionally reinforce them with positive praise, unconditional love, and unending care, it changes them. Maybe not overnight, but in time, it certainly does.
  4. Consistent. Be consistent, no matter what. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Keep lavishing love, even when they are unlovable. Keep responding to their terrible attitude with a spirit of calmness. Be firm with expectations, but wrap them up in insane compassion for this precious child. I can’t say enough about consistency. Consistency is an agent for change. Committing to consistency, over a long period of time, equals massive change in the future.

Rose is a a story of change. Rose came to live with us in the winter of 2009 when she was 17 years old. She had been through a few failed placements prior to coming to our house. Because of that, she pushed us. Boy oh boy did she push just about every boundary or expectation we set up for her. Scratch that- she flat out defied them. When she turned 18 years old, she disappeared. She had aged out of the foster care system and she was now on her own. If you would have asked me back then where she was or what she was doing, I probably would have responded with, “Dead, in jail, or homeless.” When she left the way she did, I honestly thought that would be her destiny.

But that’s where I underestimate the power of the 4 keys I just shared above. Especially #4, Consistent. When you least expect it, or even know it, your actions, your intentionality, is speaking volumes into the deepest parts of your teenager’s soul. It’s changing them from the inside out. Just a few months ago Kristin received a Facebook Message from Rose, 7 years after she abruptly left our home. It said this….

I’m thankful for your kindness, love, and patience during my time of need while in foster care. I am very fortunate to have had so many beautiful and amazing people like you in my life.

Her words stopped us dead in our tracks. More than that, they brought about a strong realization in us. That realization? Our loving actions, our calm words, our commitment to walking through hell or high water with the children we’ve been called to care for, is telling the world a much bigger story than we realize.

Question: Are you fostering teenagers? What has your experience been like? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • yvesliet

    We are not fostering a teen. We adopt a baby girl when she was 3 months old, in Colombia. She was in a loving foster family, was a healthy & smiling baby when she came to us. However, she had always been quite strong with argumentation & always testing our bonderies (more mine than her father’s, because she could get away with a lot, with him. I’m the one who have to set them up, mostly. Unfortunately, so it makes life harder for me!).

    As a teen, she is now very challenging. She has a Attention disorder deficit with hyperactivity & opposition. So, she is testing us most of the time. The social worker says she has to face a wall in order to understand that this is REALLY the limit. When she was 10 y.o., the social worker (specialized with adopted children) told me she had ”enough of 5 fingers to count how many children she met who had so much character (is this the right word in English?!)

    Every day brings a new challenge with her!

    • We totally know how that is. We have raised some babies all the way into their teen years and faced the same challenges. Hang in there.

  • Sunny Lalone

    My husband and I foster ‘high risk’ boys and it’s a daunting job. I quit everyday and then the next day I wake up and I’m in the race again. We have learned not to react to a lot of behaviors that come with these kids but once in awhile one of us will become like tea kettles. One of our rude awakenings was when it dawned on us that these boys are not our children. They have not have had the benefit of our care and concern from infancy. They have their own way of thinking and doing and only time and caring for them will turn them around. It’s nice to have people that are like minded that we can run to and ask for help. Sometimes, just asking takes a load off.

    • Sunny, thanks so much for this comment. Community with others is such an important facet of the journey.

  • Seven years ago we foster-adopted a 15 year old. It was definitely NOT all rainbows but she seems to be in a good place now. At the time, though, it sure seemed overwhelming. We’ve also parented biological teens and it was different in ways that non-foster or adoptive parents just didn’t “get.” Great practical tips here so I’m sharing. 🙂

  • JusandJess Hoffman

    Thank you so much! Our spirited just-turned-18 year old traveled with us to NY to meet some of my husband’s family. A lot of firsts, a lot of indulgences were enjoyed on this week long trip. On the last day, she was giving such lip to both of us as we had never seen. We were about to join the line at airport security, and I had a “let’s get one thing straight” discussion with her that of course brought us both to tears and migraines for hours. I have never felt so lost on what to do. My husband followed all the rules on this list, and at the time I felt he was the one who needed a lesson on parenting. Thank you for setting the path straight..again..for me. Our kids are wonderful in so many ways that I am always caught off guard by a bad behavior. I am one of the most fortunate of the Most High to be given such a task as mothering my 18-year-old and her two younger siblings.

  • zayzaymom

    Thank you again for such a timely read. I just started fostering teens after 7 years of littles. I am enjoying the freedom of not constantly chasing toddlers, these teens have me me learning a new set of rules and expectations. I have 3 teen girls, as lovely as they are, they are testing boundaries, not wanting to connect and just hide in their room. Yesterday I learned they had been smoking pot. I’m not even sure what my consequences are to be consistent. We have been working on making friends and being active rather than watching tv all day. So I hesitate to ground them to the house, As a single parent, I don’t have a big yard to send them out to work in and if we go volunteer somewhere I have to take my 2 young ones too so that doesn’t work. Any ideas? Building attachment and bonding is another subject I would love to hear about in the future. Thanks being an encouragement and light on this dark road.

    • I don’t have teens…..But whatever it is, it needs to be structured and consistent. And have fun. Games. It might be hard to get them into it at first, but a pizza/popcorn/game night every Friday might be a good thing to establish. They don’t have to play, but I bet the more consistent you are with it, the more they will come around and enjoy it. And go big on the holidays. They may or may not have had this (which also could trigger them) but decorating the house together for whatever the holiday is is fun for my kids. They always look forward to getting the boxes down for the various holidays. If you’re a member of Oasis Community, check out the video by Tricia Collins on the Hope Summit. She was a foster teen and was super rebellious but came back to her foster family years later. She told a story about smoking and how her foster mom gave her an ash tray. I’m not saying you should allow them to smoke pot!!! But maybe focus more on the relationship instead of the rules. You’re a rock star! Love the way you are handling all this.