How To Set Expectations For A Teen Who’s Never Had Any.

You get the call from a case manager asking you to take in a teenager recently placed in foster care. Or you’ve chosen to adopt a pre-teen. Now what? How do you successfully set boundaries for them? How do you ensure you and the child are on the same page when it comes to respect, guidelines, and family values?

Taking decisions for the future

We didn’t wade into the shallow end of a heated pool, so-to-speak, when we began our foster care journey. We were pretty much tossed into the deep end. Our license was completed in a very short 4 weeks and the calls started rolling in. We were often unprepared, which is to be expected. This was also very much the case when we took in our first teenager. While we had served as youth pastors for nearly a decade before our first teen arrived, everything we thought we knew about them went right out of the window when we were suddenly parenting one!

She was a good kid. Great kid, in fact. Respectful, friendly, fun to be with, and 100% participatory when it came to family activities. But, she was still a teenager. She was a 15-year old kid who had her own ideals, feelings, and thoughts on the world around her. Plus, she had come from very difficult circumstances before living with us. Her world was chaotic and she really had no boundaries or expectations before joining our family. Now, suddenly, she was in a brand new home, with a brand new family, trying to figure out which way was up. Mike and I had to figure out appropriate boundaries for her, what hills to die on when it came to discipline and respect, and how to guide her through life, and the trauma she’d experienced before coming into our home.

This was way different than anything we had experienced on the foster care journey previously. We had already taken in many younger children, even babies. Now, we were in a whole new arena.

The question, for us, was how. How do we successfully set expectations right out of the gate, for this child who never had any? How do we set rules and guidelines? These are the same questions you probably have if you’re in this situation. Here are 7 principles we’ve learned over our 15 year journey, and from 3 different occasions when a teenager entered our home through foster care…

  • Have an intentional conversation. When a teenager, or older child, first enters the home it is important to make a special time to sit down and go over expectations. I am a firm believer that food makes all conversations better. So is drink. Fix a good snack, a cup of hot chocolate, have a bowl of ice cream or travel to a local coffee shop. Make this a time just for you and your teen.
  • Listen first. No one wants to feel invisible, but for a child who is being uprooted, invisibility feels all too real. Get to know your teen first. Ask about what he or she likes to eat, what their favorite color is, and what they like to do in their free time. Offer to buy the type of shampoo or deodorant they like best. Welcome them to your home as you would a guest.
  • Explain why. Let your new child know that this family has expectations. Expectations are for everyone’s safety and well-being. In my home I may say something like, “I’m so glad you are here. I know it’s hard to come into a new place and have to learn all these new ways of doing things. I want to talk with you about some of our expectations. While you’re here it is our responsibility to keep you safe above all else. Our rules are so that everyone in our home stays safe and healthy.” For a child who has never experienced boundaries, it is important to let them know why the boundaries exist in the first place.
  • Start small. Choose just a few things that are most important in your family. All families are different so choosing just a few specific values will help your teen adjust and be successful in this new environment. Be specific and clear.
  • Some rules are unbendable. Some rules transcend culture. Every person that enters our home must not participate in illegal activity. We do not tolerate drug use or underage drinking, to name a few. We also do not tolerate unsafe behavior that makes other people in our home unsafe, let alone the child who is behaving this way.
  • Some rules point to the culture of a family. These are your personal non-negotiables. For example, we do not allow phones, belching or potty humor at the dinner table. You will have different rules for your family and likely your teen will have been raised with a family culture that is not like mine or yours. We set expectations so that our teen knows how to function well in our specific home. Respect for the values of others is a skill they will one day need to carry into a job, dating relationship or marriage.
  • Some rules are flexible. Some rules can bend or change over time. A child who enters my home at 15 may have an early curfew but as they grow in maturity and trust that curfew may become later. We may also allow them to watch the shows on television they like, even if they are not what we prefer (providing they are appropriate for the child to watch).

This is not an exhaustive list, obviously, but you get the idea. The biggest lesson we’ve learned in parenting teenagers, through foster care, and later permanency, is patience. Remaining calm, but firm, on expectations, guidelines, and boundaries is a game-changer for any parent, but especially foster and adoptive parents who may be caring for a child from a traumatic past. Rest assured- while it may not always feel like it, you are making a great impact in the life of this precious teenager you are caring for!

Question: Do you have experience in parenting teenagers through foster care? Have you adopted older children? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Jennifer Whittemore

    Great list. We adopted a 13 year old after she was in our home as foster for just 3 short months. To say it’s been a roller coaster is an understatement. From having to be hospitalized for being suicidal, to treatment away from home, then getting suspended from the first year of high school to a misdemeanor charge for giving prescription meds to another student, I still wouldn’t change anything. She’s our daughter and we keep envisioning that bright future for her. Here’s hoping sophomore year goes better, but let’s get through summer first!

    • Great attitude, Jennifer! Be encouraged and know you are not walking this journey alone.